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Location-based services expected to rocket

Gartner claims global subscribers are set to rise by nearly 168 percent this year, with mainstream adoption just two to five years away
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Will 2008 be the year mobile location-based services take off?

Worldwide subscribers are set to leap by nearly 168 percent says analyst house Gartner, which claims the market is at a "turning point" and mainstream adoption could be just two to five years away.

The analyst predicts global subscribers will rise from 16 million in 2007 to 43.2 million in 2008 — and hit 300 million in 2011. Meanwhile, revenue will jump from $485.1m (£249m) in 2007 to $1.3bn in 2008, topping $8bn in 2011, according to its Location-Based Services Subscriber and Revenue Forecast, 2006-2011 report.

Increasing numbers of GPS-enabled phones — predicted to more than triple over the next five years — and hefty investment in the navigation space from heavyweights such as Nokia underpin these predictions.

Annette Zimmermann, research analyst at Gartner, said in a statement: "Growth [in location-based services] now will be stimulated by the arrival of mobile phones with built-in, precise location-sensing and the arrival of new service providers, like Google and Nokia with its service offerings, keen to exploit geographic and positioning technologies."

But location services thrive on accuracy — and GPS alone is not always enough, according to a UK company that is developing technology to improve both the availability of GPS positioning data and its accuracy.

Wireless device company CSR is working with Motorola to establish an open industry forum of handset manufactures, network operators and GPS companies to explore what it calls "eGPS" — or enhanced GPS technology.

Stuart Strickland, vice president of CSR's location-based services unit, told ZDNet.co.uk's sister site, silicon.com: "No matter what you do with GPS there comes a point when GPS as a positioning system breaks down."

Problem areas for GPS include densely built up areas, tunnels and indoor areas.

CSR has developed a system that augments GPS to improve the availability of location data by using the cellular timing measurements phones take during normal operation.

Strickland explained: "We take measurements which tell us how long it has taken for a given signal to travel from the base station to the handset. And we use those to calculate the distance from the handset and then you get a circle round each of the cell towers that describes the possible places you could be with respect to that cell tower.

"And when you have more than four of those measurements then they overlap uniquely at one point, which is where you are."

Using this triangulation technology in combination with GPS means there is not only better availability of location data than if either technology was used on its own, but it is also more accurate, according to Strickland. When GPS fails, the best fallback can have a range of 1km to 5km, he explained — hardly ideal for informing you where the nearest Starbucks is.

But adding cellular triangulation tech to a GPS-enabled phone could give it a fallback range of between 30m and 100m, depending on the type of network being used.

Strickland said: "On GSM we've measured about 75m to 100m accuracy 67 percent of the time. On WCDMA the errors will be about half of that, so in order of 30m to 50m."

This level of accuracy opens the doors to a "pretty endless list" of location-based apps, according to Strickland — from finding out where the nearest coffee house is, to letting your friends know where you are, to keeping track of your kids' movements.

He added: "Being able to know with certainty that the error is no greater than 100 metres makes it a lot easier to anticipate what the user's situation is and what kind of service you can provide."

CSR is currently working on ways to make the tech "robust and scalable", said Strickland, who added that a commercial launch could be one to two years away — or, if you believe the analysts, just in time for the start of the services boom.

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