Location-based services come of age

28 Nov 2002

Most of the developments in the mobile arena these days have been data-centric and this month was no exception. We’ve heard a lot about location-based services over the past couple of years and it now looks like they’re finally going to arrive in a big way to Ireland.

Location-based services are made possible by the nature of the GSM network. Network coverage is divided into cells, each of which is covered by a network operator’s masts. What happens when you dial a particular mobile number is that the call is routed across the network to the appropriate cell and then relayed from the mast to the user’s mobile phone. In order to know where to route a call, the network needs to know where every particular mobile phone is at any given time.

All of this makes it possible for a mobile network to offer particular services to a user based on their position. In theory, location-based services could always have been offered on the GSM network. In practice, they’re only beginning to arrive now. There are a couple of reasons for this. For a start, the network operators believed that they had to create a market for location-based services before they could be launched.

The arrival of data services such as Wap, higher speed data in the form of GPRS and HSCSD, and most recently MMS (multimedia messaging service), combined with the massive boom in SMS (short messaging service) usage has created a market where users view their handsets as more than just a tool for voice calls. Secondly, along with the market, the services themselves had to be developed.

First to market with a full suite of location-based services is O2. It launched its Locator service earlier this month. The service is available to any O2 customer and can be accessed via three different interfaces, SMS, Wap and online at www.o2.ie. In order to activate the service, customers simply text the word START to the number 51400. The service can be used in a variety of ways.

For a start, customers can use it to find facilities nearby. Sending a command to the short code number will generate results. For example, texting the word ATM will generate a reply detailing the nearest cash machines in the area. Other services you can search for include pubs, hotels, restaurants, cinemas, taxis, doctors and pharmacies. Using the service online at the O2 website offers a further enhancement of the service. You can locate yourself on a map and also pinpoint the services you’re looking for on the map in relation to your present position. Aside from offering the location of services, Locator will also provide driving and walking directions.

The second element of O2’s new service is a facility called Buddy Finder. Its aim is to help you find people based on the location of their mobile. Given the privacy issues involved, the service is run on a strictly opt-in basis. Each customer must give their assent for anybody else to include them on their list. Customers can, at any time, choose to turn the service off in order to prevent their whereabouts from being determined. Pricing, no matter what the interface, is fairly uniform. It’s 11 cents for every text message sent or received and every Wap or web query made.

Finding services and getting directions will probably be of use to those who find themselves in unfamiliar territory. But who’s going to use the Buddy Finder when a simple phone call will often suffice to find out where someone is and, if kept brief, may cost less? “A lot of the time a phone call may be the easiest option, but there are several situations where this service would be more appropriate,” says Campbell Scott, product director at O2. “For example, you know someone may be in a business meeting and a location check might be the best way to see if they’ve left and are on their way rather than disturbing them with a phone call.”

According to Scott, location-based services are something O2 has been working on since the beginning. However, he was reluctant to comment on how he saw the services developing. “As devices get more sophisticated, there is a clear potential for a media-rich experience with maps, for example, being available on mobile devices. At the moment we want to test what the market reaction will be to the new services and decide where to go from there,” he explains.

Vodafone, too, has a limited amount of location-based services on offer. Already up and running is a location-based game, BotFighters. It allows users to compete against other mobile users and works via SMS. A Wap-based service for locating nearby services is also available. The service will be upgraded in January to allow for an SMS add-on.

According to Tom Bean, head of data product marketing at Vodafone, a people finding service is expected to be launched in the second quarter of 2003. Bean was more willing to speculate on the potential applications of the service further down the line. “There are plenty of commercial applications. For example, companies could use it to keep track on employees and vehicles. When 3G (third generation) comes along it will require more base stations and, as a result, you’ll be able to pinpoint someone’s location to within a few yards. For example, shops may be able to send you messages as you pass by,” he says.

Won’t this result in the people being bombarded with text messages as they walk down Grafton Street? “This is why the service will have to be tightly regulated. It will only work if it is operated on an opt-in basis. Each user will have to choose to give their details to a retailer. In exchange, retailers may offer discounts to those using the service,” he explains.

It’s early days for location-based services and it will be some time before we know how the public will take to them. What they do offer, though, is another plank on which new data services will be developed.

By Dick O’Brien