This article appeared in The Australian July 18, 2006

Permission obtained from Author to reproduce in full here.

Private details such as age, sex and income have always been valuable in the competitive commercial world. The more you know about your customers the better.

Now another item is fast becoming the must-have personal detail – their location. Advances in mobile technology and a raft of emerging applications have aroused interest in location-based services.  Businesses are lining up to get involved, buoyed by the potential to improve efficiencies and boost profit.  Many industry experts say the widespread introduction of location-based services will allow mobile data and internet services to surge.

Putting relevant local information in the hands of consumers could fundamentally change the way marketing campaigns are conducted.  As a concept, location-based services are not new. Ever since the widespread adoption of mobile phones, telecommunication carriers and service providers have been keen to harness the power of networks to locate users.  Potential privacy concerns aside, the ability to accurately locate someone allows marketing to become highly targeted.

Imagine being able to send an SMS offering discounts to a customer as they’re walking past your store, or perhaps an SMS request for “nearby restaurants” could be fulfilled with details of those within a block’s walk.  While they’ve been slower than expected to emerge, momentum in the location-based services space is gathering steam.

Sheryl Quirion, managing director of location-based services specialist Tenzeng, attributes much of the enthusiasm to web-based spatial and mapping tools such as Google Earth.  “People are becoming more familiar with these services and the kinds of things that you can achieve with them,” she says.  “Add to this the growing popularity of handheld navigation devices and it all starts to come together.”  Quirion says such services have taken until now to reach the market because the underlying location technology needed has not been available.

The US Federal Communications Commission requires operators make it possible for emergency services to locate mobile phone users who have made calls to 911.  This led to investments in equipment and the result was the ability to accurately track users.  “However this has not happened in Australia, and so the types of things we can do here are, as yet, more limited,” she says.

Telstra recently unveiled a service called Mobile Location Manager that tracks the location of GSM and 3G phone users within mobile cells.  The service triangulates a location using data from several base stations.  However, the service lacks the accuracy of US systems, and can only reliably track users at a suburb level or to within the nearest 500 metres.

Companies using the service will know their customers are in the Sydney CBD, for example, but will not know which street.  Although this means it can’t be used for highly targeted marketing, the service provides a platform for a range of other useful applications.  For example, Australian-based Tenzeng is working on a commercial tracking service for companies to locate and monitor the movement of vehicles and workers.

Called WorkScene, the service will have particular appeal to companies running vehicle fleets.  Rather than having to phone drivers for location updates, their approximate locations can be mapped in real time.  A plumbing company could use the service to despatch the nearest vans to jobs as they come in.  Transport companies will be able to track the movement of trucks, updating customers on delays and likely delivery times.

Meanwhile, another Australian company is developing technology that can be used to increase the accuracy of tracking services based on mobile networks.  Seeker Wireless is working with network operators in Australia and Europe on a system for phone users to be tracked to the nearest 10 metres in urban areas and to less than 500 metres in rural locations.

Seeker Wireless general manager Andrew Grill says location-based services have taken longer than expected to come to market because people have struggled to figure out how to make money from them.  “Once you improve the tracking accuracy it opens up a range of new applications,” he says.  “We are talking with a number of operators who are very interested in our technology.”

Although understandably guarded about how it works, Grill says his company’s SuperCell ID system is compatible with all GSM and 3G mobile handsets.  “All we need is information such as the location of base stations and the direction of their antennas,” he says.  “The calculations are performed on a programmed SIM card in the phone and location information is sent back in an SMS message.”

One early use that has captured the attention of mobile operators is the system’s ability to create zones in a network.  This allows users to be charged different call rates depending on where they happen to be.  For example, an operator could offer mobile customers free or heavily discounted rates when using their phone at home but higher rates when they are calling from other places.  “This is very attractive for operators,” Grill says.

“It encourages people to dispense with a home phone and use their mobile handset for all calls.”  Although this concept has been tried in the past, its success was limited by its inability to limit the size of the home zone.  Some customers found their home zone was large enough to cover the local pub and shops.  Because the intelligence for the Seeker Wireless system is in the phone handset, the requirement for messages to be sent to a central monitoring point is reduced, thus lowering operational costs.  A message is only needed when the phone senses that it has moved outside a zone.

Grill says the concept could be extended to a child tracking system by creating defined zones that cover schools. Once a child’s mobile handset detects that it has moved outside the school zone, a message can be sent to a parent.  The technology is applicable to targeted marketing. For example, the area around all Starbucks coffee shops could be designated as a zone.  Whenever a mobile handset detects that it has entered one of these zones, the customer could receive a discount coffee offer via SMS.

“The applications are extensive. You can start to do some very clever things once you have improved accuracy,” Grill says.  While tracking and zone applications have obvious commercial appeal, the real power of location-based services comes from combining tracking information with maps.  They are mainly PC-based at this stage, but there is a flurry of activity and investment based on getting useful location-based mapping applications on to handheld devices and mobile phones.

One example, from search giant Yahoo, combines street maps and satellite photographs with information about local businesses and services. When a user enters an address or business name, the map is resized to show the requested location.  A search for Holiday Inn hotels in Los Angeles, for example, results in numbered flags appearing on the screen.  Details such as the address and phone number of each property can then be accessed.

The service only covers the US and Canada at present, but the company plans to extend it to other countries within a year.  “This is a long-term vision and it’s going to take time for us to get all the elements to come together,” Yahoo search director Bradley Horowitz says.  “All the pieces need to work as a single service.”

Meanwhile, Microsoft is keenly eyeing the potential of location-based services, and investing large amounts in developing search and mapping products.  “Location-based services are one of the most exciting areas of software and visual development that we are undertaking,” Microsoft research Asia assistant managing director Hsiao-Wuen Hon says.

The objective of advertising is to match sellers with customers, and location-based services allow this to be done cost-effectively, he says.  Hon foresees a day when many corporate marketing budgets are invested in highly targeted campaigns, often aimed at individual customers.  With this in mind, Microsoft is hard at work creating what it calls virtual Earth.

The project is a combination of maps, satellite photos and images taken from low-flying aircraft of streetscapes and landscapes.  Once the images are complete, developers will incorporate real-time data delivered by networks of sensors deployed across cities and large regional centres.  These provide details of things such as weather conditions and traffic flows, which are then displayed in real time on the maps.  “This is a very exciting project. It will open a wealth of opportunities for location-based information and marketing initiatives,” Hon says.

Once the location of users can be accurately tracked, the type of information displayed on maps can be changed to reflect the interests and needs of the individual, he says.  “This is where it gets really powerful. Individuals can get their own view of the world around them,” he says.  “That is what location-based services are all about and where we are heading with this technology.”