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After years of struggle, GPS is taking off

The market for products that use GPS technology is heating up in response to technological advances, consumer interest and E911 mandates.

Finding yourself, or someone else, is starting to pay off.

After several years of unfulfilled promises, the market for products that use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology is beginning to take off, in part due to government regulations, customer acceptance and technological improvements. GPS can pinpoint an individual's location through satellite signals.

GPS chip designer


What's new:
GPS chip designer SiRF Technology is poised for an initial public offering, one of a number of signs that the GPS market is picking up.

Bottom line:
GPS technology itself is hardly new. But the market is heating up in response to technological advances, consumer interest and government mandates for emergency services.

More stories on this topic

San Jose, Calif.-based SiRF, which stands for silicon radio frequency, turned a profit last year and is expected to begin public trading on April 19, according to filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission. The initial trading price is expected to be $10 to $12 per share for 10 million shares. (In recent months, seasoned companies have experienced significant price jumps on their first day of trading.)

Investors in SiRF include Dell, Nokia, Intel, Matsushita and MiC, an NTT DoCoMo affiliate.

Meanwhile, chip designer Qualcomm is providing its GPS One technology to 15 carriers worldwide and around 20 handset manufacturers. Approximately 120 cell phone models contain Qualcomm-based GPS units. Along with providing chips, Qualcomm sells server software for improving GPS speed and accuracy.

"Now that we've got the technology in the marketplace, we are focusing on developers coming up with different applications," said Steve Brown, vice president for Qualcomm's Internet services division.

The recent surge in GPS, at least in the United States, can be largely traced to the Federal Communications Commission's E911 mandate. Under E911, cellular carriers must ensure that, by the end of 2005, 95 percent of the phones on their networks can be located by rescue workers when people dial 911.

While carriers have experimented with various ideas for implementing E911, such as the oft-criticized Enhanced Observed Time Difference (EOTD), the emerging technology of choice for many appears to be GPS, or a form of GPS that can be enhanced through cellular positioning. Sprint, Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications are adopting a form of GPS for E911.

The main technological rival to this form of GPS is now Time Difference of Arrival (TDOA), which determines a phone's position by measuring the time a call reaches "location measuring units" inside a cell phone network base station. T-Mobile, Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless, which Cingular is buying, switched from EOTD to TDOA last year.

Purely cellular systems like TDOA, however, demand base station upgrades. GPS requires server software upgrades and is more accurate, advocates say.

But consumer demand for GPS is growing, and companies are taking note. Although not required by regulation, Hutcheson's 3G networks being built in Europe and Southeast Asia will support GPS tracking. In Japan and Korea, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom and KDDI are providing location-based GPS services and content.

Recently, KDDI surpassed rival NTT DoCoMo in signing new subscribers, Brown said. The company attributed the gain to EasyNaviWalk, a personal navigation application that tracks an individual's movements through a combination of GPS signals and processing that takes place on the handset.

"It is really being embraced as the technology of choice, going forward" for European carriers, Brown said. In Latin America, the ability to track people is becoming attractive. "Personal security is a big issue there," he added.

Putting in-car in drive
General Motors is seeing increased subscriptions and use of its GPS-based OnStar in-car help system, said Tony Scott, chief information officer of GM, in a recent interview. Consulting firm Gartner predicts that GPS-based car navigation will grow from 8.7 million cars today to 16 million by 2006. Toyota and Honda include similar navigational and help systems in many of their models.

Mapping software that will allow a dispatcher to look at a screen and see the geographic location of all on-duty drivers or technicians could also enjoy a strong market, said Paul Dittner, a wireless analyst at Gartner.

"One application that we know will take off is the 'Where are my friends' sort of thing," Dittner said. "The FCC is driving what you are seeing now, but in addition to that, there is an interest and need for location-based services."

Nonetheless, GPS isn't exactly an overnight phenomenon. A host of companies, many in Japan, have tried to popularize the technology since the mid-1990s.

A GPS module, which includes a GPS chipset and a few other components, a few years ago would have cost $200 to $300 and would have been relatively bulky, said Kanwar Chadha, vice president of marketing at SiRF. Chadha also helped found the company in 1995.

Due to Moore's Law, a complete module costs around $40 to $50, he said. Still, cell phone makers want to get the price of GPS functionality down to $20 or even $10, so chip designers are coming up with ways to integrate the technology into other chips, Chadha said.

One solution, which is gaining popularity, is for chip designers to simply sell the intellectual property rather than the chips. That way, a phone manufacturer could integrate GPS functionality into the processor and other necessary chips inside a cell phone. Motorola has already shifted from buying chips from SiRF to licensing technology, Chadha said.

"Some of these challenges you can't meet with standalone chips," he said. "It took longer than expected, but even then it was clear that there is a mass-market appeal to the technology."

Qualcomm bundles its GPS chip technology into the majority of its chipsets at no additional charge. The only extra hardware that's required is an antenna, which costs about $1. Handset makers have to build their phones around Qualcomm silicon.

Privacy issues and ensuring that different location services will be compatible with a wide range of phones also have to be ironed out before mass acceptance of commercial location services.

Local obstructions
The focus of modern GPS specialists can be boiled down to words: buildings and trees. In the 1990s, many GPS developers spent most of their energy honing the precision of their devices, which were targeted at building contractors and the military.

By contrast, accuracy in the consumer market is more of a relative concept--pinpointing a location to 5 meters to 20 meters is generally close enough. So developers started to concentrate on figuring out ways to navigate natural obstacles.

"Nobody was focused on how to make the system for urban canyons or dense foliage," Chadha said. "It was focused on how to get within a millimeter of accuracy, not how to get a quicker response."

The urban canyon problem, he said, is largely an issue of speed. Satellite signals can only be intercepted by a moving target for brief periods of time before buildings block them again, Chadha said. To get around the problem, the company incorporated 240 correlators, which search for satellite signals, into its first chipsets. Typical chipsets at the time contained around 50 correlators.

"The more correlators, the more deep and broad the search," Chadha said. "You need a satellite search engine that is very fast."

The second round of SiRF chipsets then concentrated on eliminating the foliage problem. In forests, signals don't necessarily get blocked, but they can be attenuated by leaves or other objects. Thus, chips have to be capable of catching weak signals.

The E911 mandate also made speed a problem. In traditional GPS systems, a cell phone latches onto an identifying satellite signal in a few milliseconds and then sends a signal to the satellite. Sending a signal to a satellite confirms the user's position, but it takes about 30 seconds. The second signal is important because it determines the location of the satellite relative to the user. E911 demands that a user's position be fixed in a few seconds.

To get around that problem, both SiRF and Qualcomm have developed server software that tracks the satellites. Thus, in an E911 situation, the phone snags a signal from the satellite, and then grabs information regarding the location of the orbiting satellite from the terrestrial server. The whole process takes about two to three seconds.

Qualcomm additionally reinforces GPS positioning with Advanced Forward Link Trilateration, a cellular-based tracking system that kicks in when the results from the satellite systems are hazy.

The San Diego-based company also has begun to market hosting services in North America for customers who want to expand beyond E911 applications.

While a number of companies have in-house GPS technology, Qualcomm and SiRF are two of the more visible. Qualcomm, which boosted its GPS intellectual property by buying SnapTrack in March 2000, has landed deals with, among others, Sony Ericsson, Samsung, China Unicom, Verizon and Sprint.

Smaller SiRF meanwhile, has inserted its technology into Motorola phones--despite the fact that Motorola has its own GPS silicon--as well as into Hewlett-Packard handhelds and cars from Toyota and Honda.

Still, as the market grows, more will likely enter it, Qualcomm's Brown said.

"You are going to hear a lot of new names," he said.