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Location Based Services Evolve

More recently, RCL has been involved in LBS through projects with three customers, helping create white papers, case studies and web collateral. So, I have been looking into things again and this was a terrific opportunity to obtain peer opinions and hear expert commentary.

As with many recent conferences I have attended, the iPhone was top of the list for discussion. Apparently, there has been considerable activity around the field of LBS in the iPhone application ecosystem, with several thousand location-orientated applications now being available. Of course, this discussion was before the announcement that Apple was to start ring-fencing location advertising in the ecosystem, but still the numbers were impressive. What's really interesting, though, is the fact that almost all of these applications leverage what Stephen Deadman from Vodafone termed "ambient" location data.

Coming from the SS7 world, I am well used to what we should now term "network" location equipment. This is the traditional world of the GMLC, LMUs and the like, in which data is obtained from network measurements and signalling to determine the position of handsets. Crucially, the operator, as owner of the network has a key role as both the discoverer and the broker of this information. Traditionally, sophisticated equipment has been used to obtain positioning information. Agencies such as 3GPP have usefully defined standards in which levels of accuracy are mapped to appropriate classes of service. Understanding the granularity required for a particular service is extremely helpful in planning the most effective commercial portfolio and utilisation of location data.

However, ambient location data is different - it can be obtained without the consent of the operator and potentially disintermediates the operator from the value chain. Is this another example of the move towards bit-pipe models with over-the-top providers hogging all the revenue? What does it mean for operator-owned location services?

So, what do we mean by ambient data? Well, it's location data based on technologies such as GPS, Wi-Fi hotspot maps and Cell ID - all apparently freely available via various resources. Of course, GPS and Wi-Fi require appropriate handsets, although not for long. One of the most interesting presentations came from EMT, who showed an A-GPS enabled SIM that can be inserted into traditional handsets and instantly enable GPS positioning technologies. Evidently, this will be available within the next 12 months and the trial has attracted some degree of deserved attention.

But Cell ID information is readily available and there are growing efforts to provide publicly available databases of the location of base stations. This enables non-operator players to use a combination of the three techniques to offer location based services. Of course, accuracy can be variable, but usually within tolerable limits, particularly in urban areas. Although this is in one sense empowering, at least in terms of user choice, it may well create some thorny legal issues, primarily concerning privacy and liability. There were particularly interesting contributions, both from Stephen Deadman and Jan Willem van den Bos, of Denton Wilde Sapte.

Essentially, in the traditional world, in which MNOs have a monopoly on location information, they could control the associated applications and assume full liability for the service. However, in the new world if the operator is neither responsible for the provision of the information, nor for the service itself, who then has responsibility or liability for the protection of privacy and security?

Of course, the answer isn't yet known, but certainly MNOs would want to avoid liability if they have no control over the services. It's an interesting argument and one worth watching over the next few months. Evidently, the issue is before the EU so expect plenty of lobbying from the various stakeholders.

But does this essentially mean that, if location is effectively ubiquitous, the operator has no role in the resulting services? Not at all! We saw plenty of operators talking about how location can be combined with other capabilities to offer services that address specific vertical opportunities. Telecom Italia, Turkcell and others had interesting presentations that addressed this issue. For example, both companies are launching automotive services that combine location information, mapping and related services into a navigation device that is shipped with new cars. Subscription models create a sticky relationship with the operator and justify the expense of subsidising the device.

What's more, in our presentation we pointed out that:

a) it's going to be a long time before legacy 2G or GPRS handsets are replaced by other devices;
b) operators may still want to offer services at scale and with a robustness that is not found elsewhere;
c) GPS isn't 100% available, particularly in urban areas; and
d) Is expensive and drains battery life.

As research in the Moriana IMS report showed, operators consider location to be a valuable asset and want to offer it to third parties, but haven't been able to do so yet, or not to any great extent, though there were signs from the conference that some operators, such as Vodafone were starting to do so.

So the provision of location data, obtained from mobile networks by the operators, may start to take off. Of course, it faces challenges from over-the-top (OTT) providers, making use of ambient data, but operators must be able to offer some differentiation, either through accuracy, continuous availability, or the ability to stream high volumes of data from their network. Network-based location data is part of this differentiation.

Network-based technologies are likely to be around for some considerable time to come. Indeed, there is a whole new opportunity based around the provision of anonymous user data to marketing agencies. Whereas classic location services are usually either user or network initiated, but are generally point-to-point (i.e. an individual request for location is made and fulfilled), there is another class of services that depend on the availability of high volumes of positioning information which may be beyond the capacity of classic network-based or emerging OTT solutions. Equipment designed to support streaming mobile data may yet prove to be in demand, as operators seek to monetise location assets through new partnerships, such as with marketing agencies or data miners.

Despite the advent of ambient data and growth in OTT provisioned services, beyond the control of operators, we think there is a significant opportunity for operators to invest in their own, specialist services and to capitalise on new business partnerships through the provision of mass location and tracking information. But, it's not a one-way strategy - operators need to be able to enable OTT applications (and capture revenue for them) as well as offering their own services. At present, this seems some way off, but equally, the challenge of external providers that solely leverage ambient data must be grasped so that operators can deliver their own compelling services and create new and enduring business models.