Zeroing in on location-based services

John C. Tanner
Wireless Asia

One of the more interesting technology showcase demos at the Shanghai Expo was the first device designed to work across different satellite positioning systems. The device - developed by ZTE and Intellect Telecom, the R&D division of Russian financial corporation JSFC Sistema - works on both GPS and Glonass, and purportedly also works with the upcoming Beidou and Galileo systems from China and the EU, respectively. 

Neither ZTE not Intellect Telecom gave an indication of when the device would be available commercially. If nothing else, it's not bad timing, considering the growing ubiquity of GPS in handsets. Research firm iSuppli estimates that by the fourth quarter of next year, close to 80% of handsets shipped that quarter will have GPS chips inside them (up from just over 56% in Q1 2009), thanks chiefly to the smartphone boom. (By 2014, incidentally, over 40% of portable video game consoles will also have embedded GPS.)

How many of those might contain multi-mode positioning chips is hard to say 'probably not many. But that may be beside the point in the longer term - GPS is increasingly becoming just one small piece of a much more complex LBS puzzle. 

That's not to say that the rise of GPS hasn't done wonders for LBS in general in terms of emergency services and getting more consumers to use location-based devices like PNDs and automotive navigation systems, and putting a premium on accuracy.

But GPS has always been hobbled by its line-of-sight limitations. GPS can get you from Point A to Point B (provided you don't have to travel through an urban canyon - or a natural canyon - to get there), but if Point B is the inside of a shopping complex or underground market, you might as well buy a paper map. Supplemental cellular-based technologies from Cell ID to A-GPS can help to varying degrees, but accuracy varies widely. Plus, until recently, LBS apps weren't that compelling or easy to use, and were offered as a premium part of the cellco's walled garden. 

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