With federal e911 regulations requiring that all cell phones can be precisely located, companies are using the same technology to launch commercial "location-based services." Consumers would be able to locate friends' cell phones or get directions to the closest Mexican restaurant or police station. Or find out where they are, if they're lost.
But whether America's 140 million cell phone users will embrace such services remains to be seen, especially since earlier non-calling services, such as wireless e-mail, are still struggling to catch on years after being introduced.
Location-based services in particular also have privacy advocates on edge, though carriers say consumer information will be kept safe.
"The old joke used to be that the only way (the communications industry) can make money (by offering) 911 is to charge for it," said Federal Communications Commission legal adviser Joel Taubenblatt. "Now we're trying to find the way."
Location-based services work by triangulation, using either satellites or cellular antennas on a network to determine where a phone is by calculating its distance from the various fixed points.
So far, AT&T Wireless is the only one to introduce a so-called location-based service--called Find Friends--to its subscribers. But most carriers are expected to follow with their own versions in the coming months.
AT&T Wireless' Find Friends mMode plan, which costs $2.99 or more a month.can pinpoint another cell phone's location down to an intersection in a city, or within miles in a rural area, according to spokesman Jeremy Pemble. It is offered in about two dozen areas where AT&T Wireless has a cellular telephone network using GPRS (general packet radio service) and is part of the company's
Using the feature is similar to instant messaging "buddy lists," with a cell phone user inviting a friend to be on his or her list, which allows that friend to be located at any time. A buddy-to-be gets a text message on his or her phone describing the request to join and can decide to either agree, say "no" for now or always deny access, which permanently bars a person's invitation.
Buddies who have already signed up can also slip away--keying in commands to become "invisible." When someone is seeking a buddy, a text message is sent, alerting the buddy to the particulars of the request, such as who's asking about his or her location, Pemble said.
Find Friends can also locate nearby businesses, or find a restaurant midway between the caller and buddy and send the buddy an invitation to meet, complete with directions. The feature is called "RSVP."
AT&T says the new service is more of a measuring stick; if it becomes popular, the company plans to add more location-based offerings, Pemble said.
Other plans in the works
Most major carriers say they are investigating location-based services.
Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest wireless carrier, is working with Microsoft, according to spokesman Jeff Nelson. In late May, the two companiesa multimillion-dollar deal to provide a new service called "VZW with MSN," which allows Verizon Wireless customers access to MSN Messenger and other Microsoft services.
"We are looking at a host of location-based services," Nelson said.
Sprint PCS is looking to create new businesses, but is sensitive to the cost of building the infrastructure needed just to be able to beam a Pizza Hut discount coupon to a cell phone as it passes the eatery. "It's not this year, maybe not next," said spokesman Dan Wilinsky. "It's much farther out."
Cingular Wireless is taking a different tact, focusing efforts on business customers, especially those considering location-based services as a way to track inventory or personnel, said Steven D. Jaeger, regional vice president for global markets. Cingular Wireless already hosts some services for FedEx, but is also looking at developing games that can take advantage of location-based services.
VoiceStream Wireless wouldn't comment on what commercial applications, if any, the company has planned.
Not just a phone thing
Several companies are looking into services for the road warrior--or would-be warriors who want to use their phones to play games.
Kivera, the company that has partnered with AT&T Wireless on the Find Friends service, plans to unveil a new concept called "real-time rerouting" for avoiding traffic jams while on the road. Acting as a super information line, the service would cross-check standard driving directions against constantly updated traffic information databases, figuring out the fastest routes based on traffic or road hazards, said Clay Collier, Kivera's chief executive.
"It's coming soon," Collier said.
European carriers have come up with games that incorporate cell phones, said Joel Gruen, business development manager at TeleCommunication Systems, which is working with nearly all U.S. carriers to deploy location-based services.
Current offerings are similar to the popular game laser tag, except the combat takes place over the phone using characters such as magicians or wizards. For example, a city is divided into 25 different zones. Players entering one zone can search for other combatants nearby, then engage them in battle.
"In Europe, people have been showing up outside other people's houses at 2 a.m. for sneak attacks," Gruen said.
Japanese carrier KDDI already introduced a service that finds the nearest McDonald's restaurant, Gruen said.
"It's an indication of what's coming as bigger companies begin using LBS (location-based services) in their branding," Gruen said.
Some of the location service proposals aren't for cell phones.
Digital Angel, for instance, has created a device that can be worn by Alzheimer's patients. If they pass a certain pre-prescribed area, an alert is sent out to their caretakers. The same device on a pet's collar can alert an owner when it goes astray.
An Intel lab in Oregon, where much of the chipmaker's work in mobility research is done, is working on a "personal radar system," among other projects using location-based services.
"You take this device with you on a Saturday when you're hanging out at a mall and it will tell you that your friend is a few hundred feet away," said Intel spokesman Manny Vara.
Microsoft's group product manager Rik Temmink said he's trying to interest the company's Windows division into adding location-based services into the operating system. Temmink is part of Microsoft's MapPoint, a new hosted Web service that allows businesses to add mapping capabilities to applications so customers can find directions through a PC or handheld device, he said.
But don't count on anything in the near future, he said.
"Location is a hard problem to solve, but it's so central to applications in general--we have to solve the problem," Temmink said.
The San Francisco School District turned to location-based services to help quiet parents' complaints that school buses were constantly late. The district put devices on the buses to track the exact location of each bus, right down to the times it passed street corners.
"The complaints went away, at every location," said Krish Panu, chief executive of @Road, a software and equipment maker the school district turned to for help.
Spam gets a new dimension
Having location technology at a user's fingertips has its drawbacks. Concerns over privacy and have become a larger issue. If location information ends up in the wrong hands, it could, for example, help burglars break into empty homes.
The Better Business Bureau is already asking carriers how they plan to make these services safe enough to keep people from being stalked or falling victim to other privacy violations.
"There are some things you don't mind other people knowing, but your location isn't one of them," said Gary Laden, a privacy program director for BBBOnline, a Better Business Bureau subsidiary.
On Wednesday, the FCC refused a request by the telephone industry's leading lobbyist, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, to draft privacy guidelines for carriers to follow for location-based services. Instead, the FCC said there was adequate consumer protection in place. Congress recently required that carriers protect a person's location from public view.
Both AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless say they do not sell the information they collect from subscribers, such as a home address. And they don't plan to do anything different with location information, once they do offer these services.
"We already know where you live, but we haven't made that available to anyone," Verizon Wireless representative Nancy Stark said.
But the proof is in the applications that already exist. AT&T Wireless' Find Friends has allowed American consumers their first chance to test location-based services, which allows people to control who knows where they are at and when.
"We've designed it with security in mind," Pemble said.