Chapter 17: Location-Based Services

Chapter 17: Location-Based Services

Adding location information to mobile applications adds an important dimension to many solutions. Location aware applications increase user efficiency by providing customized access to data based not only on user preferences, but also on the user's current position. This takes content personalization to a new level, providing tremendous benefits to both consumer and enterprise applications.

This chapter gives a complete overview of location-based services (LBS). This includes an examination of location positioning technology and examples of how location information can be used in both consumer and corporate applications. The chapter also previews the standardization efforts that are underway for location information. We begin by discussing why location is important and what forces are driving the market.

Location-Based Services: What, Why, and When

Industry analysts, service providers, and consumers all agree on one thing: that location-based services are valuable for the mobile user. Studies conducted to determine which mobile features are in greatest demand indicate that location information is high on the wish list of the average mobile user. The reasons people cite for wanting location capabilities range from safety concerns to m-commerce; but in all cases, they believe that having LBS on their mobile devices is a must.

Before we delve into why this may be the case, let's first take a look at what location-based services are: They are applications that take advantage of location information to provide a timely service. These services can range from finding the nearest gas station to obtaining instructions on how to get from point A to point B. Or, in many cases, they provide information about a user's current location to emergency personnel, such as the 911 emergency service. Other LBS uses, such as receiving an alert on your phone about a sale as you walk by a particular store, though promised, are still some time away from being available to the mobile user. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's look at the three generations of location-based services:

  • First generation. These applications require the users to manually input location information into their devices. Input can be in the form of a postal or zip code or possibly a city name or street address. Based on this information, the application can provide customized content such as driving directions, nearby restaurant or store locations, or weather information.

  • Second generation. These applications can determine location information without the assistance of the mobile user. The location is usually accurate to within a few kilometers (1 to 2 miles), similar to the accuracy level in first-generation applications. They also provide similar services to those in first-generation applications.

  • Third generation. These applications can obtain more accurate location information and can initiate services based on location. Third-generation applications can provide timely updates about nearby brick-and-mortar services, assettracking information, and street-level mapping and routing. In general thirdgeneration applications are feature-rich and user-friendly, although some groups are voicing concerns over privacy.

As you may be aware, currently the market is in the second generation of LBS, and working its way toward third-generation services. What is driving the market to implement these new types of LBS? There is no single answer to this question. Many factors are driving the new breed of LBS, factors that depend on both the region and type of user being addressed. In the United States, one of the strongest drivers of LBS is the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) mandate for the Enhanced 911 (E911) service (more on this shortly). In Europe and Asia, m-commerce is the driving factor. And in all regions, LBS can provide tremendous advantages for corporate applications such as fleet management and asset tracking.


There are those who argue that there is no need for automatic positioning technology because many location services are not based on a user's current position, but rather on a location that the user will be at in the future. For example, a user might want to find a nice restaurant near a customer site for a dinner meeting, but he or she is nowhere near the particular location when the information is required. This is definitely true in some cases, but there are just as many situations when knowing the user's current position is critical.

Let's get back to the aforementioned E911 service requirements for wireless devices, as mandated by the U.S. FCC. To date, there are two phases of implementation:

  • Phase I. This involves providing information about the cellular tower where the call originated. Wireless networks are divided into cells, so knowing the cell that the user is currently in provides some idea of the user's location, usually accurate to within a few kilometers (1 to 2 miles). Also, the user's callback number is usually provided so the person can be contacted if more information is required. All wireless carriers meet the Phase I requirements.

  • Phase II. This involves providing much more accurate position information to the 911 emergency services. Carriers are required to provide location information accurate to within a 125-meter (400 feet) radius at least 67 percent of the time. Phase II was originally scheduled to be completed by October 1, 2001, but providing this level of accuracy has proven to be difficult. Consequently, most carriers have been granted extensions to this date since both the time required and cost of upgrading their networks is much higher than anticipated. Some analysts estimate that the total cost of the Phase II upgrade will cost U.S. wireless carriers more than $3 billion! Full deployment (covering 95 percent of users) is expected in 2005.

Prior to Phase I implementation, calling 911 from a wireless phone was somewhat ineffective. The operators not only had to find out what the emergency was, but also the location of the problem. This was especially difficult because usually the caller was not at a fixed location, but rather on the side of the road somewhere, in the woods, or some other unfamiliar location. Obtaining accurate location information is just as important as finding out what the emergency is. With Phase I implementations in place, they can at least get a general idea of the location and work from there. Phase II will provide the level of position detail that is required to execute effective emergency services. (More on the mobile positioning technologies used for Phase I and Phase II implementations is provided later in this chapter.)


If you are interested in learning more about the FCC E911 mandate, or want to find out about carrier's compliance plans, visit

Fortunately, the benefit of all of this infrastructure development applies to more than emergency services. Once the technology is in place to provide accurate positioning information, it can be used by LBS providers for both consumer and corporate applications. This may prove to be a big plus for m-commerce, as it would have taken much longer for these technologies to be put in place if carriers based their decisions on market demand and return on investment. Imagine how many applications would be required to generate the $3 billion required to add these capabilities to the wireless networks.

It is expected that once these positioning technologies are in place, they will be used for a variety of applications. Once you can locate a customer to within a few hundred meters, there are many useful and exciting applications that can be developed that take advantage of the location information. That said, the cost of implementing these types of solutions is still high, and until vendors are convinced they will see a return on that investment, location services will not become readily available.