Many people ask me what I think is the most important current development in the mobile and wireless industry. Obviously, a lot is happening in this arena, but in my opinion, nothing holds as much potential as Location-Based Services (LBS). The LBS industry has been growing during the past couple of years and is now showing potential for location-aware customer and enterprise applications. In this Mobile & Wireless UPDATE, I provide an overview of the LBS industry and some of the potential applications.

Most people are familiar with the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to determine locations. Current GPS solutions use a GPS receiver that determines position on a client device by relative location to multiple satellites. Levels of accuracy depend on the number of satellites involved in determining the position. (Accuracy can be as precise as 10 feet.) GPS receivers must be positioned so that they're exposed directly to the sky, and they typically require a licensing or service fee to use the service. GPS is well suited to providing realtime driving directions; I've seen terrific applications that prompt delivery drivers with destinations as they drive. GPS is also effective when a device is outside typical wireless coverage areas.

In contrast, LBS uses wireless network technology to locate a device. If your phone is turned on and connected to the network, most wireless carriers can locate your device on their networks. Current levels of accuracy are between 1 mile and 5 miles. LBS determines your location through Cell Site ID and a tower to which you're actively connected. This location-determination functionality is provided by software at each wireless carrier that ascertains latitude and longitude. Additionally, this software can integrate with a Geographic Information System (GIS) to return postal Zip code, cross streets, points of interest, and so on. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is requiring wireless carriers in the United States to provide this functionality as part of the E911 bill, which is designed to help emergency personnel locate 911 callers. Phase 2 E911 will require accuracy within about 1000 feet and is scheduled for full implementation in 2003. Such accuracy will involve cellular triangulation that determines a user's location relative to three separate cellular towers.

LBS typically doesn't require additional hardware and, in most cases, will work with new and old phones and even data-only cards. Cellular triangulation requires new phones and additional base-station technology. Today, AT&T Wireless is the only US carrier to provide commercial LBS services—in its mMode portal and its new Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM)/General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) network. The mMode portal offers a Location Services feature, which lets you find restaurants, points of interest, and even friends who also use mMode. I find Location Services particularly useful for locating restaurants in areas with which I'm not familiar. I also enjoy the Find Friends functionality for determining whether colleagues are in town or traveling.

Obviously, privacy is a concern with this type of functionality. Wireless carriers seem to be taking privacy seriously. For example, the Find Friends feature will work only if both friends first grant access to each other's location information. Additionally, each user can revoke access or become invisible for a period of time.

LBS has huge potential over the next couple of years in the creation of location-aware consumer and enterprise solutions. My company is working on several ideas, including automated dispatch specific to a user's location. If the LBS industry interests you and you'd like to create location-aware applications, send me your contact information and I'll keep you up-to-date on relevant information. See you next time.