Operators have missed the boat on mobile location services

After a series of false dawns, it seems that mobile location services might finally be on the brink of something big. But it won’t be thanks to the mobile operators and their networks. In this new dawn, operators are likely to be eclipsed by interlopers from outside the traditional mobile-location-services space.

Mobile networks, and their ability to roughly pinpoint the whereabouts of phones, will still be needed in the new surge of location services. But the interlopers, such as Google and Nokia, have cheekily hacked into the information required to enable positioning on phones – both plain cellular positioning, known as cell-ID, and cellular-assisted satellite positioning, known as A-GPS – without the help of operators.

That means that users with phones loaded with Google Maps or Nokia Maps, for example, can have these services automatically detect their location and can receive maps and information relevant to that location as they move from network to network and country to country, at no extra cost – something that has been impossible with services enabled with operator-delivered positioning.

This is a major shift in the balance of power in mobile location services. Operators have long cherished cellular networks’ innate ability to locate subscribers within the nearest cell towers as a unique selling point they could bring to value-added services on phones. They have also long considered it one of the key assets stopping them from becoming dumb data pipes, as ISPs have in the fixed-line world.

So it’s surprising that operators haven’t been kicking up more of a stink about how Google, Nokia and others have been, what some might say, “stealing” their cell-ID information and threatening to cut them out of the location-services value chain. We’ve heard hardly a whimper from them.

Yet they still have the power to spoil things for the interlopers. They could renumber the cells in their networks to render useless the cell-ID databases that Google and Nokia have been building up. They could also insist that Android and Nokia phones sold in their stores be preset to take location readings from their own location servers but not from Google’s and Nokia’s databases.

Deep down in their hearts, however, operators probably realize that they have only themselves to blame for what’s happened – that they missed the golden opportunity they had to create a global ecosystem for mobile location services and that there’s not much point in trying to turn back the tide now.

T-Mobile, for example, has confirmed to Informa Telecoms & Media that it is allowing G1 phones – for which it is the exclusive launch operator in some markets – to tap into Google’s cell-ID database.

In Europe, where for years many operators have been trying to profit from their cell-ID data by selling it wholesale to application providers, cellcos have yet to enable location roaming – the ability for mobile services to continue taking location readings as users roam on foreign networks – and, in most cases, have yet to deploy systems to support A-GPS on phones. And in some cases, as in Italy, they have not made cell-ID data available to third parties.

Most operators that have opened up access to their location servers charge third parties for that access – typically about US$0.10 per location reading – making it prohibitive for any service in which users are likely to want to frequently pinpoint their location or their friends’, as in the case of location-based social networking.

So, until recently, a company wanting to roll out, say, a consumer-focused navigation/friend-finder service on phones that could work in any country without incurring any positioning costs would have found it impossible – unless they just relied on straight GPS (though straight GPS doesn’t work well indoors or in urban centers without assistance from mobile networks or other positioning sources).

Now, however, that company can develop such a service for Google’s Android or Gears platforms or, no doubt soon, for Nokia’s Ovi or Symbian platforms, and see it rolled out globally on phones powered by these platforms.

Some might argue that services that work only on specific handsets are not truly global (meaning “universal”), but what’s best: services that work on all phones but are not global, or services that are global but work on only a few phones? That all depends on the purpose of the service, of course, but it could be argued that navigation and mapping services are only truly useful to users when they are in alien surroundings, which often means abroad.

There are good reasons, related to user privacy and security, for the cautious way in which operators have moved on location. Some might be glad to pass that headache on to others.

And operators might still be able to secure a cut of the revenues generated from this new generation of mobile location services (most likely from advertising) by offering to cooperate with the likes of Google and Nokia – i.e. if they promise not to sabotage these services.

There’s no doubt, however, that operators have let themselves be outmaneuvered on location services.


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