Cellular networks have long been enabled to locate devices wherever they are attached to allow end-users obtain location information on emergency services and value-added applications. However, the technical architecture and business models applied to mobile networks have been slanted toward supporting operator-controlled applications alone as opposed to the model of user-controlled applications that have emerged.
Many devices come equipped with GPS services. However, GPS is often slow and unreliable. Cell towers and Wi-Fi access points tend to provide stronger signals that do not suffer from the same occlusion that troubles low power GPS signals. Often a survey that records accurate ground-truth locations that help to administer base map data and point-of-interest data is conducted to create a database that maps location to visible radio signal sources.
Most Android devices have an operating system that provides an API, which allows the device's network adapters to scan for cell towers and Wi-Fi sources and reaches out through the Internet to Google's "world in a database" (WiDB) system as a substitute for GPS.
Companies like Skyhook Wireless and Google have been forerunners in bridging the gap that opened up when older cellular location service models were unable to support the demands of end-device controlled services. However, this is set to change with the new generation of HTTP Enabled Location Delivery (HELD) protocols that allow any device to query networks for its location. HELD is an IP standard that will enable any networkable computing device, wired or mobile to query the network for a location regardless of the nature of the network - broadband DSL, enterprise LAN or mobile 3G.
With the new HELD protocols, the operator's coverage is by definition wherever the user is able to attach to the network; the operator can then ensure that the location service is available everywhere the network is, thus allowing network operators to provide more than just emergency calling services. The new generation of Internet location-service architectures and protocols essentially puts network operators back into LBS value chain that they have long been cut out of.
Martin Dawson is director of the GeoLENs location server business unit at Andrew Solutions