Location-based services spark treasure hunt
Ever since the FCC first mandated in 1996 that all wireless carriers must accurately locate 911 callers, market studies have suggested that millions of dollars in revenues could be made by letting users locate people, places and maybe even lost pets with the stroke of a mobile phone key — money that could go far in helping carriers recoup their mandated investments in E911 technology.
But the move to commercial location-based services (LBS) didn’t go as quickly as planned. More than 10 years later, operators have finally come to a point where they are comfortable with how widespread and stable the technology has become. Nearly 80% of the U.S. population is now covered by Phase II E911 capabilities — a prerequisite for providing accurate location information. Phase II requires carriers to deliver more specific latitude and longitude location information, known as Automatic Location Identification, to the public-safety answering point (PSAP) for 911 calls made from wireless handsets.
“There were always cases where E911 worked well, but carriers were very concerned about running into a situation where they might advertise a commercial application, and the next day someone dies because someone couldn’t find them. They didn’t want to be in that position,” said Tim Lorello, chief marketing officer and senior vice president with TeleCommunication Systems Inc., which develops E911 solutions for PSAPs and commercial applications for operators. “They wanted to make sure the technology was deployed solidly out there for at least 18 months.”
However, so far in 2007, LBS has resurged significantly throughout the North American market. A perfect storm of factors have come together: relatively inexpensive mobile handsets now leverage embedded, assisted GPS technology that is delivered on high-speed data networks capable of retrieving complex information such as maps, Lorello said.
Initially in 2002, Bell Mobility and Nextel, now part of Sprint Nextel, were alone in offering high-precision GPS-based services to their customers. In 2005, Sprint launched the Business Mobility Framework, which gave enterprises and developers the ability to leverage newly optimized location and presence features in the network to devise their own applications. Verizon Wireless introduced its own services in 2006. Even more powerful was Sprint Nextel’s move last year to port all of the advanced LBS applications from Nextel’s iDEN network onto Sprint’s CDMA network. This has resulted in an adoption surge in the enterprise, said Mary Foltz, director of wireless data business solutions for Sprint Nextel.
“The biggest news today is that Sprint has seen the first of what I would call large business accounts using navigation as a true business tool, where the company is paying for the services for its workers,” she said.
A unnamed health and human services organization in Los Angeles is now paying for its social workers to use a navigation service from TeleNav, which allows them to import the addresses of their appointments to give them turn-by-turn directions. The organization found the service kept its workers safe because they didn’t need to read directions from a printout, and the application also allowed them to squeeze in an extra appointment per day because they didn’t get lost.
Indeed, a revolution is occurring in the fleet management and tracking space. Enterprises understand that knowing where their assets are saves time and money. “Fleet tracking is a hot requirement in a number of sectors,” Lorello said. “These companies all benefit from tracking services and dispatching field service technicians quickly and accurately.”
Vince Poloniato, president of Solutions Into Motion, a Montreal-based company that offers a GPS tracking service called Trackem to enterprises and consumers, can cite a number of case studies detailing the financial benefits for those businesses that manage fleets. For instance, a fuel dispensing company is saving 160 kilometers (99 miles) per truck on a weekly basis because the company dispatcher can track each vehicle via the installed GPS modem. In another example, a transportation company was going to be charged $400 for allegedly not showing up to a drop site to meet a crane company. The transportation company was able to print a Trackem report that proved its employees waited four hours for the crane company to show up. The crane company couldn’t provide the same information.
Call it Big Brother, but employees don’t seem to mind the intrusion. Although privacy issues were a large concern just a year ago, enterprises have now found that their workers have come to realize that location services actually benefit them, Foltz said.
“There have been a lot of cases where employees have been exonerated because tracking showed they were at the place they were supposed to be,” she said. “There has been a turning point for support of GPS services. The minute someone in the field gets personal benefit out of the application, the resistance goes away.”
Employees also have been cleared in false accusations of hit-and-run accidents. In the past, employees were left to defend themselves against such accusations, but with an independent audit trail, businesses are willing to defend their employees. “GPS has gone from a threat to a real benefit,” Poloniato said. “A survey of one of our customers reveals that 17 hours per month are saved in personal time savings. The customer now trusts its employees to take the company vehicle home at night.”
In fact, Poloniato said, businesses that simply tell their employees they plan to implement a GPS tracking system find that an average of six hours per week fall off each driver’s log.
An added benefit is that savings stemming from LBS could be passed down to consumers. Trackem offers a feature that allows its clients to share the location of a vehicle with their customers for a 24-hour period.
Lorello offers this enticing scenario: “If I were waiting for Sears to deliver a washer-and-dryer combo, wouldn’t it be great if I could see if it’s en route so I don’t have to wait around during that four-hour window?”