Location information provides the backbone of numerous new user applications launched into the nascent mobile apps market. Increased use of the mobile internet and smart-phones has led to a flood of new services, from navigational aids and tracking friends' whereabouts, to finding the nearest eatery - all of which depend on relaying accurate data to enhance users' experience of their phones. However, due to techniques that bypass the network's access infrastructure, this experience is often less reliable and less accurate than it could be.
In addition, users of VoIP applications, which also operate independently from the access network, could have far more serious implications for users. Calls made via VoIP make it notoriously difficult to determine a user's position. Should a person call emergency or security services using this technology, their location would not be able to be identified. This issue, and that of location quality, are of paramount importance to operators and their customers alike.
Both issues arose with the widespread adoption of smartphones and increased use of 3G technology. Whereas early location deployments had the operator being largely in control of the whole location process, (from the determination techniques used to the applications that could access the information), the move towards 3G and smartphones has meant carriers have lost much of this control. Smartphone vendors are now increasingly providing autonomous GPS in handsets and/or running global location services, bypassing the operator's infrastructure and making location available directly to applications running on the smartphone.
The truth is that data obtained from handset-based positioning is not as reliable as data provided in conjunction with the network. This is because handset-based solutions only look at the network data visible to the device, such as a Wi-Fi access point or cell tower information, and use this to make an educated guess about the location. As such, they attempt to put information about the world into a database (WiDB) which can be used to help make the educated guess.
Because of this, both the operators and the users begin to suffer. Users miss out on the optimum experience that location-based technology can offer, whilst operators can lose a valuable revenue stream.
Not only do WiDB alternatives take customers away from their own location applications, but once proprietary overlay location systems have penetration into the network they begin to bleed revenue from it. This can be through direct charges to the operator for their services and/or denying the operator the ability to collect revenue for information that they inherently own.
The VoIP problem
The second location-based issue regarding the new wave of mobile applications concerns locating the position of calls made to emergency services through VoIP, which is of vital importance to public safety.
Traditionally this hasn't been an issue because determining the location of a caller from a fixed line telephone is a very simple process, as the telephone number directly relates to a permanent location. Similarly, emergency services have consistently utilised network data provided by operators, allowing them to accurately discover the position of callers using a mobile network.
However, the nature of IP-based telephony makes it incredibly difficult to find a user's location - and as a result, emergency services are unable to route calls to the right call center.
Issues occur because there is no relationship between the access network, to which the VoIP caller is attached, and the call service provider through which the call is made. The access provider can identify a user's location but is unable to determine whether a call is being made. In contrast, the call service provider can recognise when a call is initiated but is unable to track the location. Because of this dichotomy, there are potential scenarios where a VoIP caller may be based in one country but is using a voice service provider in another. Clearly, without accurate and correct information routing the call is a challenge and this is a major hurdle the industry needs to overcome.
The problem can be resolved through the development of universal IP location standards, requiring Internet access providers to provide appropriate location information for emergency services. Standards bodies such as the IETF and W3C are in the final stages of publishing international IP specifications for acquiring and conveying location information. This will change the network landscape, allowing network operators to once more be the primary source of location information for users, and enhancing user experience by providing location to applications in environments where GPS and WiDB solutions continually prove inadequate.
While smart devices and third party applications will continue to be hugely popular, they will work even better when coupled with a location-enabled network. These networks will provide users with a superior experience as the applications and services they want to use will work consistently well in a single network or across a range of networks regardless of environment or device capability. This provides the network operator with a clear service differentiator with the inherent potential benefits of a revenue stream and reduced subscriber churn.
The key to location-enabling a network is the installation of a location information server (LIS) supporting the new generation of IP location standards defined by the IETF. The LIS presents a common interface to devices requiring location information, enabling the same device to ask for location in exactly the same way, regardless of the underlying access technology.
By doing this, the LIS separates the two functions of providing and determining the location information. When a device enters a location-enabled network it is able to discover the LIS using standard discovery procedures in the same way that it can obtain an IP address from a DHCP server, or find a DNS server to resolve host names.
As with any emerging industry there are always teething problems, and the mobile applications market is no different. As an industry we are now in a strong position to correct issues concerning the quality of location-based applications and the difficulty in locating the position of calls made through VoIP. By implementing a set of universal IP location standards and giving control back to the operators, we can ensure that users are given the best possible mobile experience, whilst protecting a valuable source of revenue for operators.
James Winterbottom is global product manager for Andrew's GeoLENs IP Location portfolio