Accurate location-based mobile services are still some way off

The launch by Orange of of Europe-wide location-based services marks an acceleration in the first wave of this new technology....

The launch by Orange of of Europe-wide location-based services marks an acceleration in the first wave of this new technology. But business will have to wait some time for the full potential of location-based services to be realised, writes Antony Adshead.

The service offered by Orange will be accurate to a distance of 50m-100m in towns and up to 30km in rural areas, because it merely locates the mobile phone cell.

Orange has plans to introduce a location-finding service for mobile phones early in 2003 which will give more accuracy by triangulating the position of the phone from base stations using either time difference or angle.

Today's location-based technology only allows users to get information of the "nearest to" variety - nearest restaurant or cashpoint, for example - and lacks the accuracy to provide address-specific directions.

Also, because integration in the field is expensive and complex, there is little auxiliary information such as mapping, and connections to back-end systems are rare.

The true potential of the technology is also held back by low-bandwidth, small-screen devices.

Dario Betti, an analyst with Ovum, said, "There is still some way to go. Good location-based services for more than just simple mass-market needs require bigger screens and higher bandwidth, so we will be looking to GPRS and wider availability of large, colour-screen devices.

"We are still in the early days regarding the types of integration necessary to provide rich services. Knitting together IT systems, devices and the mobile network is not an easy task and expertise is limited."

So, in the short term, mobile phone-based location services will not be able to provide enough accuracy to tell the consumer or field worker exactly where they are or how to get where they need to go. To achieve this now requires Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, although that does not work inside buildings or in heavily built-up areas.

Jonathon Klinger, marketing director at Webraska, which supplied geospatial platform software to Orange, said, "The next step is Assisted GPS. This combines GPS with triangulation from the carrier network. It is faster than traditional GPS and works where buildings block GPS. But it is not yet commercially viable."

The three levels of location technology
  • A location-finding platform on the mobile carrier's network. All of these technologies require hardware additions on either carrier network equipment, handsets, or both

  • The geospatial platform. Sophisticated software which converts the raw location data into forms such as latitude/longitude, address, routes and mapping

  • Applications. This is where co-ordinates developed in the geospatial platform are related to business information.

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