Alternative Positioning Systems Boosts LBS Industry

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Industry News
Alternative Positioning Systems Boosts LBS Industry

By Susan Smith

According to a recent ABI Research study, “ Alternative Positioning Technologies,” GPS is only part of location based solutions (LBS). Particularly in Europe, ABI practice director Dominique Bonte said in a recent interview, there are not a lot of GPS handsets, as most people are using mid-range or low end handsets that don’t have GPS capabilities. In the U.S., due to e-911 emergency calling regulations, all the carriers have GPS-enabled handsets, to determine location in case of emergency. Companies such as Verizon and Sprint offer GPS enabled handsets.

Another factor is that GPS doesn’t work well in indoors or in urban canyons where there is no clear view of the sky for it to pick up satellite signals. “It either performs very badly or doesn’t perform at all,” said Bonte. “So that’s why it’s so important to complement GPS with these alternative positioning technologies and there are many different ones, the most popular one is called cell ID. If GPS is not available, then the location is shown as cell ID.”

Basically the location of the cell tower of the user’s cellular provider, which has limited accuracy, provides additional coverage and gives the user the approximate location whenever GPS doesn’t give any location at all.

The second alternative location based solution that has gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. is WiFi. The measurements of WiFi signals from WiFi hotspots determine the location – “this is much more accurate, I think accuracy is between 50 and 100 meters whereas cell ID could be up to several hundred meters.” The licensing of Skyhook Wireless’s Wi-Fi positioning to GPS-chipset vendors Broadcom, Qualcomm, SiRF, and CSR add to availability. According to ABI Research press materials, Sprint’s recent decision to allow third-party developers access to its network-based location platform via location aggregators such as Wavemarket, Loc-Aid, and uLocate will stimulate the use of hybrid positioning. Google is building their own reference database of cell-tower and/or Wi-Fi hotspot locations via user-generated content and/or self-learning mechanisms, allowing them to offer LBS services independent of carriers.

“Currently you need to look at all the different positioning technologies and how they actually compliment each other to provide the end user with what I would call ‘seamless location experience,’ which would give them location where ever it is, not necessarily always with the same accuracy,” explained Bonte. “But there’s always a fall back option to WiFi or cell ID, so that in any circumstance you have a certain awareness of the application and what the application is using for local search or social networking. Everybody keeps talking about GPS, but it’s no longer just about GPS, it’s about a range of different technologies.”

Compasses are now increasingly built into handsets such as the Apple iPhone, T-Mobile Google G1 and some of Nokia’s handsets. This is expected to become more widespread, as the compass allows users to know their orientation in addition to location.

“Companies need to look at a whole spectrum of technologies,” suggested Bonte. There has been discussion that the GPS constellation could be degraded to fewer satellites, going down from 29 or 30 to 24. This would then reduce the reliability and capability of GPS even further. The launch of new GPS satellites may be delayed, with the older satellites gradually becoming outdated and reaching the end of their lifecycle.

On the other hand, new systems like GLONASS in Russia or the European Galileo and a new Chinese satellite system are in different phases of rollout. GLONASS is fairly available, Galileo is still in the early stages of development and the Chinese plan to have a full constellation by 2016.

Several carriers in the U.S. such as Verizon don’t provide access to GPS in their handsets, according to Bonte. Third parties developers create a software application with GPS capability to sell to an app store but if the user downloads it to his Verizon the GPS capability will be locked. Verizon only makes it available for their own applications and not for non-Verizon branded applications. “This is another reason companies are providing alternative positioning technologies which may have lower accuracy or precision but which offer sufficient precision for certain apps,” Bonte said. “For instance, for local search, if you’re looking for the nearest restaurant, you don’t necessarily need to know down to the meter or to the yards where the restaurant is if you know it’s in the immediate vicinity, if you know the street name and the number. That will be enough to find your way to the restaurant. Obviously for navigation you need more precision and still need GPS. For many of the new social networking applications you don’t need to know the precision to that high of accuracy.”

Alternative positioning is opening up the environment to allow smaller companies to get into the game, and make it not such an exclusive domain for the carriers. The iPhone has over 2,500 LBS applications on it which are using a combination of GPS and WiFi based cell ID location technology. “This created already a huge boost for the LBS industry because prior to this, there was hardly anything available,” noted Bonte. “That’s an example of how important these alternative positioning technologies have become.”

The electronic compass is a traditional compass built electronically that knows how to orient a map. For example, if you’re standing in front of a building, the map will automatically orient correctly, “so you’re trying to match the map view with the reality around you.”

An “accelerometer” detects movement. The Google G1 includes a combination of the compass and accelerometer which allows the system to not only know the orientation but also the speed at which the user’s orientation is changing, “you may be turning around and by detecting that movement it can immediately adapt the orientation of the map on your cell phone,” explained Bonte. “It’s used in the iPhone by some applications when you turn the phone. The orientation for the picture is automatically changed. It’s a sensor that essentially detects motions to provide you with landscape view, or self portrait view. It can also be used for LBS apps to keep track of your orientation and speed orientation as it is changing. So in that respect it’s kind of an extension of location by adding orientation.”

Clearly the widespread use of the iPhone and other smartphones is driving the use of LBS, but also the availability of LBS drives the use of the handsets. Because GPS takes awhile to calculate a location, an alternative positioning system can help GPS get a quicker fix on location.

“I think in the next years we’ll see location become almost like a default feature on almost any mobile app,” predicted Bonte. “It’s going to become an embedded characteristic of anything we do, be it messaging or networking or local search.”

As the carriers are no longer the sole providers of LBS, the market is destined to change and more handset manufacturers or independent third party software developers will start offering their own solutions independent of the carriers.

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