opinion


It’s all about the ‘cell’

small cell 2

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this article Dean Anthony Gratton speaks to ip.access to explore the latest developments in small cell technology and what they mean for the mobile industry. 

In last month’s feature, I mentioned that I planned to speak with ip.access and, as promised, I did catch up with Nick Johnson, Chief Technology Officer (CTO); Gavin Ray, Senior Vice President (SVP), Products and Marketing, and the ever-so wonderful, Emmanuela Spiteri Micallef, Senior Marketing Manager; all based in Cambridge.

It was a chat that pretty much started with the good, bad and ugly surrounding small cell technology and I made my thoughts abundantly clear about such malarkey. Nonetheless, our conversation turned to their ‘presenceCell’ technology and its proposition. In fact, both Nick and Gavin described their presenceCell offering as ‘kinda-like’ a small cell. So, whilst keeping a composed and ‘smiley’ face over the phone, I did think this was not the best start since a small cell is a low powered femtocell, right?

Your digital footstep exposed!

I soon learned that ip.access’s presenceCell was a whole lot more than this, a revelation that, to be honest, left me somewhat aghast! But, first things first, and before I begin to explain their technology, I just want to touch upon how we are unknowingly leaving a digital footprint pretty much anywhere we travel when using our credit card, smartphone, tablet and smartwatch devices. For example, I was reading an article the other day about my Apple iPhone 6 Plus and its many features. I discovered that there’s a lesser known feature tucked away in the ‘Settings’ ironically listed under ‘Privacy’ > ‘Location Services’ > ‘System Services’ > ‘Frequent Locations.’ The feature can be turned off but, if you’re curious, take a peak.

Let me explain: The ‘Frequent Locations’ section exposed my various rendezvous across London, Cambridge and Nottingham – what’s more, it wasn’t giving out just the headline city names. My device had tracked me down to the actual street and, in some instances, the building itself! It was quite alarming to read that my device knew more about my surrounding location than I did! But does that really matter I later asked myself? Such information is, in fact, extremely valuable when using Apple’s ‘Find My iPhone’ app. It offers amazing accuracy when locating your phone if it has been lost or stolen but, of course, such location services need to be enabled.

Unlock the value of location data

We may all feel slightly unnerved at the prospect of embracing technologies that harvest our whereabouts, but ip.access’s presenceCell revels in the value of location data. The presenceCell doesn’t’ provide cellular coverage as such but, instead, the baby-like base station specifically captures anonymous user location and phone identity information from your smart device which, in turn, may be analysed and packaged for businesses that may be interested in digesting the data.

Like it or not, this is actually already happening with macro cells, albeit more coarsely. In contrast, presenceCell offers better granularity with an accuracy of between five and ten meters within indoor or urban environments. What’s more, your device requires no modification, no apps to be installed and does not require Wi-Fi or Bluetooth wireless technology to be enabled. It seems this ‘Big Data’ thing is already happening and it’s set to increase exponentially but, to what end?

When to opt-in or -out?

I’m sure you’ve read the stories surrounding Apple Pay and Apple’s iBeacon technology and ip.access’s precenceCell takes this application sphere a little further. First and foremost, we’re assured that the information gathered is anonymous, so the technology deployed in a retail store for example,  can track your movements alluding to behaviour and how you shop – something that’s been coined as ‘bread-crumbing,’ and something which we already know isn’t entirely new. If a user chooses to ‘opt-in,’ they will receive notifications about special offers and promotions. Nick confirmed, “Retailers, banks and so on, want to know where people are so that they can offer or advertise their services.” You see, it’s all about the sell, no I mean ‘cell’!

Humph! The last thing I would want is to be bombarded with irrelevant promotions. Yes, I may choose to opt-in but, if so, I would like to be offered the opportunity to select categories of products or services that I may be interested in receiving and nothing else. If I’m saturated with annoying, unspecific promotions then, alas, I would ‘opt-out’.

Who are the custodians of this big data?

With a modest rise in smartphone usage as an electronic wallet, it’s clearly paramount to ensure the security of such data transactions. Naturally, the presenceCell lends itself aptly to providing an additional layer to mobile commerce and security since it’s capable of associating your purchase with current location and, I have to admit, I do like that feature. It gives me an increased sense of confidence when choosing to use my smartphone to make contactless purchases, although there’s no correlation between me being actually present or just the phone itself unless, as with Apple’s Touch ID, fingerprint security is in place.

It seems, whether we like it or not, in today’s society we are all monitored, whether intentionally or indirectly which, alas, is a sign of our occasionally volatile society. Almost every street across the UK has CCTV. In fact, if you’re a fan of the US TV Series, ‘Person of Interest’ you will glean some sense of how easily we can all be tracked and ultimately monitored, but as long as we have nothing to hide, then we shouldn’t necessarily fear being bread-crumbed.

Knowledge is power, and to be both tracked and, in many ways, manipulated according to our everyday movements raises perhaps the most important question of all: Who should we entrust as custodians of all this big data?

Until next time…

The Internet of Things (IoT) is still nagging at me, but I do see some modest growth with standard bodies emerging in recognition of the fact that standards are required to, not only define the technologies but ultimately to cohesively roadmap what they can achieve and do in partnership. I won’t tackle the subject in next month’s feature but, instead, I will review the IoT this summer, in a ‘one year on’ piece.

So, this is where a very patient Dr G signs off.

 

grattonboy-with-fedora(social-media)Dr Dean Anthony Gratton is a bestselling author and columnist, and has worked extensively within the wireless communications R&D industry. His wireless research work has been patented. You can contact Dean at telecoms@deangratton.com and follow him on Twitter (@grattonboy) to enjoy his risqué humour, witty shenanigans, social media and technology-related tweets. You can also read more about his work at deangratton.com.


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