Blending GPS, RFID, WiFi, and cell networks, location-based applications are poised to soar

October 31, 2006

4 Min Read
Wireless Beyond the Warehouse

The combination of GPS, RFID technology, and powerful cellular and WiFi networks is poised to drive location-based services beyond the mostly consumer applications that have grabbed headlines to date, according to Francis Rabuck, president of Rabuck and Associates and a consultant to large enterprises on mobile technology.

Speaking today at Mobile Business Expo, in Chicago, Rabuck said that tracking people, assets, and goods will be increasingly important in coming years, thanks both to government mandates and market drivers.

To date, most of the publicity surrounding LBS has gone to consumer-focused applications, such as mobile-device systems that can locate a nearby pizza joint, or deliver targeted ads, based on user location. Those types of applications will be dwarfed in coming years by enterprise-focused services, Rabuck claims.

Meanwhile, the cost, ease of use, and power of location-based services is increasing to the point where even small businesses will find it cost-effective to deploy them.

"This is not Mission Impossible II-type technology we're talking about here," Rabuck says. "This stuff has been around a long time."

Helping bring on the new era in location technology is the inclusion of GPS chips in many standard mobile devices offered by major wireless carriers, which have been under the so-called "E-911" mandate for five years to make it possible for the location of callers on mobile phones to be pinpointed by emergency services providers. Originally, the carriers believed (or claimed) that cell-tower triangulation would allow "close-enough" locating for callers. That has not proved accurate in practice, Rabuck says, but the carriers are now finding ways to generate revenues by providing more precise location data. " 'Sorta close' is not going to cut it anymore," Rabuck notes.

At the same time, the proliferation of wireless LANs in warehouses and office buildings, and of wide-area WiFi networks across industrial campuses and entire cities, is convincing companies to find new uses for those systems, including tracking people and things.

"WiFi is creating a real center of gravity" for the spread of location-based services, says Rabuck. "It's appealing to lots of people to try and use that architecture for new location-based applications. But you have to understand reality and the risk factors."

The reality of running location-based applications over WiFi networks, in fact, is that enterprises must multiply the number of access points on the network by as much as three, not to mention a fair amount of "tweaking and gyration," Rabuck adds.

Other location myths include:

  • GPS devices transmit data (in fact they only collect satellite data on geographical location).

  • GPS can tell you, not only where you are, but how to get where you want to go (see above).

  • RFID tags can be tracked and followed at long distances (the range of RFID can be measured in meters, at most).

  • RFID tags are sensors (in fact they have no measurement capability unless attached to wireless sensors).

  • Tracking must include wireless connectivity (GPS-equipped devices can collect and store geo-tracking data for later download, without transmitting it in real-time).

  • Enterprise-class location-based services are by definition expensive, complicated, and difficult (many systems available today cost under $1,000 and can be installed in minutes).

While much of the RFID activity to date has been focused on supply-chain applications, driven by directives from the government and from major retailers like Wal-Mart, Rabuck says that market forces will take over in creating new uses and driver for location apps.

"If you try to do ROI studies on this stuff, as with RFID, so far it's not driven by making money, but by mandates," he says. "But if you have trucks or fleets, or you have professional salespeople in the field, vehicle navigation and tracking is a wise thing for lots of reasons."

At the same time, a cluster of technological advances -- including the spread of sophisticated wireless sensor networks, the proliferation of active, battery-equipped RFID tags replacing passive ones, and the operational launch of the European Union's new geographical satellite network, Galileo, in 2010 -- will make new location services both ubiquitous and lower-priced.

"The awareness of this technology is becoming much higher," Rabuck concludes. "When you show your boss something like a simple in-car navigation/tracking system, the typical response is 'Why aren't we tracking X, Y, and Z?' "

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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