Phone Guards

Suppliers of location based technology have yet to convince the vast majority of Middle Eastern and African wireless operators of its worth. But continuing crime and security problems in several countries in the region may prompt some service providers to take another look

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By  Richard Agnew Published  August 28, 2004

|~|lbs1.gif|~||~|Pitched as a must-have application for mobile operators when they first came on the scene in the late 1990s, location based services (LBS) have still to live up to their early promise. Globally, their impact has been limited, in part by an ill-defined technical roadmap, low end-user awareness and the poor accuracy offered by early positioning solutions. While services are starting to appear in the Middle East and Africa (MEA), providers admit it could be some time away before they provide healthy returns. Several mobile operators have also held back from investing heavily in LBS in the absence of a clear business case; focusing instead on lo-fi, mainstream consumer applications. “Many operators’ attitude towards LBS has been to throw it out there and see how it goes,” says Jason Angelides, director of global services at location equipment vendor, True Position. While ‘find-your-nearest’ services allowing consumers to locate nearby ATMs, cinemas and other amenities have been slow to take off, LBS have seen greater success, however, in the area of security. This has been particularly evident in the US, where regulations introduced in the late 1990’s prompted wireless operators to invest in technology allowing emergency services to pinpoint callers. Various firms, vendors say, are studying LBS more closely now when it comes to planning their security systems. Several personal safety services have also been launched by operators, allowing parents to monitor children’s location via their phones, for example. Outside the US, however, authorities have taken a softer line when requiring operators to implement LBS for emergency-type applications. As a result, conservative assessments of LBS’ commercial potential are perceived to have held them back. In MEA, most operators have yet to offer any LBS at all. In Europe, meanwhile, many providers that have launched LBS have based them on Cell Identification (Cell ID) or Enhanced Cell ID technology, which are cheaper than other options but only hazard a guess at the location of users’ phones, based on the cell site they are in at the time. “Many operators seem to be offering Cell ID and seeing if they can generate any interest in LBS,” says Graham Wilde, managing director of mobile consultancy, BWCS. “Most of them would say that uptake has been disappointing so far. They haven’t had time to develop the most attractive applications and they’re not using the most ideal technology,” he adds. Nevertheless, signs are emerging that LBS demand could rebound. While vendors and operators believe that Big Brother-type concerns could still be a barrier to LBS, they argue that privacy has not become the insurmountable problem that many people once thought it would be. On the one hand, the idea of a retailer pushing SMS ads to pedestrians as they walk past a shop has yet to achieve any widespread appeal among users. But vendors argue that certain consumers will put privacy aside if services have tangible benefit, and if they retain control over how the information is given away. BWCS also conducted a survey in Europe earlier this year into reasons why LBS usage was lower than expected. Fewer people cited privacy issues than the fact that they didn’t know services existed, weren’t useful or were too hard to use. “Privacy will always be an issue and there will always be a case where there can be some abuse,” says Angelides. “But application developers also recognise how important privacy is and are making substantial efforts to make sure that their systems are secure. Once consumers understand that LBS are opt-in services, the issue disappears. As long as they are user-controlled, they’re OK,” he adds. Vendors also claim that more demand is emerging from the enterprise community for more precise solutions, to integrate into security applications, as well as other processes such as supply chain management and sales force automation. “Initially, operators thought that the consumer space was going to be the most thriving market, and consumers can be more forgiving of accuracy,” says Scott Petronis, senior product manager at US-based vendor, MapInfo. “But we’re seeing more requirements for precision technologies. We’re also doing more and more work around specific business applications, such as supply chain logistics and security,” he adds. In Europe, Angelides suggests that regulations similar to those in the US could be tightened up soon. This, he says, will encourage operators to invest in more advanced technologies, such as Assisted GPS (A-GPS), which uses satellite positioning to track users more accurately, and Uplink Observed Time Difference of Arrival (UTDOA). Through UTDOA, separate base stations listen out for signals normally transmitted from handsets and compute their position from the times they arrive. Both technologies can improve accuracy at least to within 50m. Regional interest in security-oriented LBS also seems to be growing, particularly in countries where enterprises and governments are more worried about threats to their employees and assets. True Position, for example, claims to be conducting a live trial of LBS in an un-named Middle Eastern market as part of a government-driven initiative to improve security. LBS are also being put forward for businesses involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, as well as in other countries. “We’re seeing demand from places where there is a significant concentration of foreign workers that need to be protected and significant assets that could be at risk, including the construction and oil industries,” adds MapInfo’s Petronis, although not naming specific markets. Saudi Telecom’s mobile arm, Al Jawal, is one operator that has already committed to roll out security-oriented LBS for both the consumer and business sectors. Although it is yet to launch an LBS platform on its GSM network, personal safety-oriented mobile services are in the network operator’s roadmap for 2005. “We are planning to start introducing personal safety and locator services next year,” says Jameel Al-Molhem, marketing general manager, Al Jawal. “Given the geographic spread of Saudi Arabia and the number of cities in the Kingdom, we believe there is a need for LBS,” he adds. Al Jawal also recently partnered with Advanced Electronics Company (AEC), the Riyadh-based technology provider, to offer automated vehicle localisation services (AVLS) for the Kingdom’s transportation firms. After being approached by petroleum companies that were seeking to address the problem of truck drivers stealing oil, the provider integrated remote monitoring of vehicles’ fuel gauges and the ability to request fuel tanks to be opened via SMS. The system also feeds vehicles’ coordinates back to the end-user via the operator’s SMS centre (SMSc). South Africa’s Vodacom also launched LBS earlier this year, in a move specifically geared towards helping protect firms and consumers against crime. It has linked up with Cellfind, a locally-based wireless application service provider (WASP), to offer an SMS-based service which allows subscribers to check whether their children are at school, locate their own phones when they are lost or stolen and send a personalised distress message with their position to other cell numbers. Users can also set a ‘soft alert’ if they feel that they are entering a dangerous area, triggering an SMS to be sent after so many minutes unless they cancel it first. Since its launch at the end of February, Cellfind claims to have signed up around 30,000 customers, including individual subscribers and 4000 business users. “The security market in South Africa is massive, for obvious reasons,” says Alan Knott-Craig, MD of Cellfind. “We have quite a few business clients, mainly security companies that are manning ATMs, banks and shopping malls, and firms with large mobile workforces like taxi drivers and sales reps. When their employees get lost or find themselves in an emergency situation, the company can find them and dispatch the relevant resources,” he adds. Cellfind plans to expand beyond South Africa, particularly into markets where greater security worries would create a more viable business case, as opposed to European countries where operators have argued that governments should help fund public safety LBS programmes. “We are in negotiations with a number of operators and we’re doing technical feasibility studies to determine how far advanced the networks are,” says Knott-Craig. “The Middle East and several Third World countries would benefit greatly from this type of technology. The security issues there don’t apply to people in Europe [and] operators in the West have far less of a commercial incentive to launch these services,” he adds. Vendors admit, though, that the rate at which LBS will expand will depend heavily on improving operators’ perceptions of the returns they think they can get from investing in technology platforms. One thing that has dissuaded them from doing so has been the technology-led approach to LBS that arose from competitors’ vested interests in different solutions. “The vendors went into the marketplace and presented individual location technologies,” says Angelides. “Each one was saying that ‘our system works better than the other guy’s.’ They also assumed that operators had a good understanding of how to take these systems and make money. This was wrong but our approach is much more technology-agnostic now,” he adds. It also remains to be seen whether operators in the region — many of which have yet to launch any LBS — will see a need to install more costly platforms such as UTDOA and A-GPS, despite the increased effectiveness they would bring. Both technologies also have their own pluses and minuses. As UTDOA depends on the concentration of base stations, it can suffer performance degradation in remote areas, while A-GPS handsets are still to be taken up in any numbers in the region and the satellite signals can be blocked when users are inside buildings. Other alternatives also exist. UK-based vendor, Cambridge Position Systems, is pushing its Matrix solution, which uses software within handsets and mobile location centres to deliver positioning information. There is also the option to use Cell ID in areas where base station layout is dense and UTDOA elsewhere, as well as other hybrid solutions. “There is no ideal location based technology,” says Wilde. “UTDOA works well indoors but is less accurate in rural areas because there are fewer base stations. A-GPS is very accurate and consistent — even if you are in the middle of the desert it will locate you to around 15m. But if you are in a shopping mall then it won’t work well. It’s also quite an expensive additional feature to put on a handset,” he adds. There are already some operators in the region moving towards A-GPS, particularly in markets where compatible handset penetration should increase more rapidly. MTC-Vodafone, which began offering lifestyle-oriented LBS in Bahrain in April, has based them on Cell ID but is looking to deploy A-GPS in the future. “We are looking at more accurate technologies,” says Esam Zainal, senior manager, value added services, engineering, MTC-Vodafone Bahrain. “When 3G becomes more common, more users will have handsets with GPS built in. That will give more accuracy [and] open enhanced services for businesses,” he adds. Cellfind, however, doesn’t back A-GPS as the right solution for lower GDP countries where advanced handsets are unavailable, and security issues are often more prevalent. It currently uses a database of local landmarks and users’ likely locations to supplement its Cell ID platform, but has also developed the system to work with UTDOA. “UTDOA completely lowers all barriers to entry. In Third World countries, handset independent technologies are essential. To get everybody onto A-GPS would take too long and be too expensive. It would happen eventually, but not for ten years,” says Knott-Craig. It seems likely, therefore, that security-oriented LBS would often be more relevant for markets where operators have less cash to spend on advanced technology platforms, and where mobile penetration and the development of wireless data services are less advanced. Kuwaiti mobile operator, Wataniya Telecom sees more suitability for LBS in its North African territories, rather than its home market. “There is definitely a market for LBS in a place like Algeria,” says Andrei Torriani, chief product development & technology officer, Wataniya Telecom. “In places like Kuwait, Bahrain or Qatar, you can generally find out where a person is and get to them relatively quickly. There are other applications such as location based advertising, but by themselves, they don’t warrant a large-scale investment,” he adds. What is clear is that different LBS services and applications would have a greater impact in some markets than others. MTC-Vodafone, for example, admits that its lifestyle service in Bahrain is still in its early stages and that its potential to generate cash could be some time away. The operator is gearing the service towards tourists, but is also perceived to be using its Bahraini unit as a testing ground for new applications before launching them in other, more lucrative markets. “LBS have great potential but I don’t think they will be a major revenue earner right now,” says Zainal. “MTC-Vodafone Bahrain is a showcase for the MTC Group, so we decided to start LBS here,” he adds. Nevertheless, in countries where safety is less of a concern for businesses and consumers, operators do predict that a need for higher value applications will eventually arise, particularly in the business and public sectors. Qatar Telecom (Qtel), for example, admits that launching mainstream services could be difficult, but plans to offer LBS to ease the logistical challenges involved in holding the Asian Games in 2006. “We’re somewhat cautious about moving into LBS as they require tremendous amounts of customer education,” says Ross Cormack, executive director, wireless services, Qtel. “But we see a lot of interest from businesses. We are also looking to [use LBS] to manage the bus fleet for the Games,” he adds.||**||

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