Better safe than sorry

Many lessons have been learned from the recent Virginia Tech student shootings. Here's one of them: when it came to alerting students to the fact that a gunman was at large, email proved itself to be ineffective. As a result, mobile handsets are now being viewed as the safety and security devices of the future.


The US government is already considering introducing mandatory mobile messaging solutions for every university in the wake of the shooting tragedy. And educational institutions globally are looking at ways to harness mobiles as safety apps. For Australian wireless messaging specialist, MGM Wireless, which exclusively targets the education sector, the Virginia Tech tragedy has resulted in a rush of demand from universities for its SMS-based broadcast service as a crisis management communications solution.


MGM Wireless CEO Mark Fortunatow told Charged that the publicity surrounding the tragedy has made institutions re-prioritize the importance of being able to communicate with students and parents at all times. MGM's system was initially developed as a method of monitoring student attendance with parents receiving notification in the case of an absentee. But Fortunatow says the emergence of critical safety issues has meant that the application is being increasingly adopted as the primary communication tool between student, teachers and guardians.


The vendor-neutral MGM system can't physically track students, but Fortunatow says that the company is currently exploring a GPS-based solution for 3G handsets which it plans to launch internationally. Little wonder - location is a key component of personal safety services. And long before Virginia Tech, some mobile operators had already launched location-based safety and tracking services. In the US, cellcos are required under E911 regulations from the FCC to provide location-based information for emergency response teams. In Japan and South Korea, cellcos like SK Telecom, KTF, LG Telecom and KDDI have offered GPS-based child-tracking services for years (although Korean operators were accused by a lawmaker earlier this year of offering the services illegally under a new law (passed after the services were launched) requiring them to notify customers when they are tracked).


However, most operators don't offer safety/tracking services - partly because GSM networks (which account for 80 per cent of the world's mobile users) can't support GPS without expensive add-on equipment, and partly because they view safety tracking as too niche.


As such, independent service providers like Mobiles2go are stepping in. Mobiles2go, an international provider of safety and monitoring services, initially launched focusing on children's safety with its i-Kids service. Already entrenched in markets such as South Korea with over 85,000 users, the solution provides children with a cute GPS-enabled handset that monitors the child's movements  within five meters on a web-based map. It then sends alerts to parents when it moves outside designated safety zones - even when the phone is off.


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Mobiles2go founder Mark Gullickson says that until now, carriers have viewed the child safety market segment alone as too marginal to invest in. But with evolving device and software technology, safety applications can now be delivered to wider markets such as seniors, lone workers and business-vehicles. The company, which now operates in eight countries and is forecasting 400,000 active subscribers by year end, plans to sign on one million subscribers by the end of 2008 in 30 countries.


Gullickson says that consumers are increasingly demanding more complex levels of safety with their mobility services, including zone alerts, route information, remote user controls, emergency call services and - for senior citizens and lone workers - a "man-down" alert function that alerts the office or dispatch center if the device owner has fallen or not moved.


Gullickson expects mass market adoption will follow once handset makers launch mid and low tier handsets with integrated GPS receivers around 2008/2009.


"This will allow niche providers of such safety services to simply install their device-specific software onto the users mobile," he says.




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