Friday, May 4, 2007

Location-based services — next growth area?

Thursday I was fortunate to attend the opening meeting of the San Diego Telecom Council’s§ newest special interest group (SIG), that for location-based services (LBS).

gpsOneTo get everyone on the same page, the SIG organizers had a broad lineup of executives and entrepreneurs in the LBS space. Location awareness in cellphones stems from the FCC’s E911 mandate. Four speakers talked about how to shift the technology from a government-imposed cost to a business opportunity:
  • Arnold Gum, a manager at Qualcomm, who talked about how the Qualcomm gpsOne assisted-GPS technology combines cell-tower based triangulation (good in cities) with GPS satellite-based location (good in rural areas). (Somehow he managed to do so without mentioning Qualcomm’s $1 billion purchase of SnapTrack in 2000). Verizon and Sprint thus have the best LBS potential because gpsOne has been embedded in all Qualcomm CDMA chips and thus all new CMDA phones sold in the US.
  • Stephen Stuut, former CEO of local startup Broadband Innovations and now CEO of Pennsylvania-based TruePosition, which since 1999 has been a subsidiary of John Malone’s Liberty Media. TruePosition tries to solve the LBS problems of GSM carriers, first for the US but now for the much larger international market.
  • James Adams, a co-founder of NeverLost Networks — created to find lost kids in amusement parks — which after they realied the tiny market sized morphed into AwarePoint, a company using RFID to track instruments and other equipment within hospitals. Adams recently founded Locomobi.
  • Mark Wells, CEO and co-founder of DriveOK, which uses cell phone positioning to track 20,000 subscribers (mostly teenager drivers).
Between them, Gum and Adams identified the key drivers of location-based services:
  • automation. Is the data location entered manually, reported to a human, or to another computer? (Wells was the first person I’ve heard use “M2M” as in machine-to-machine).
  • range. Are you trying to find something anywhere on the planet or within a building? Adams seemed to convinced his audience that RFID (low cost, short range) LBS should be considered as an extension of cellular or GPS-based solutions.
  • accuracy. Do you need to know the city, within 300m (a typical cell phone triangulation), or within a few feet? I can imagine localizing equipment in a hospital requires more accuracy than “find me the nearest movie theater.”
  • timeliness. Do you need the data in realtime (where is our convicted sex offender) or only a few times a month or year (where is our Coke® machine)?
  • cost. How much are you willing to pay? Per object? Per system/tracking network? Per transmission? Wells noted, for example, that the business models of cell carriers assume a $50 monthly revenue per mobile device, far too much for monthly tracking of capital equipment.
Stuut reminded the audience of the US-centrism of the privacy debate. Here, a subscriber’s location is not transmitted to the cell carrier unless you opt-in. (Something you will wish you had done if you have a car crash). However, this is a US requirement. Stuut noted that for interior ministers of some countries, having the carrier spy on customers is considered a good thing, particularly in countries where remote-detonated bombs are common.

The new SIG has a strong lineup of officers/co-founders.
  • Neeraj Bhavani is founder and CEO of Tagnos, which provides RFID integration software for healthcare.
  • Steve Morley came to San Diego with Linkabit and left Qualcomm more than 25 years later.
  • Magda Remillard did her own startup before joining the local operations of Novatel Wireless.
  • The ubiquitous Marco Thompson, onetime SDTC president who now seems to start new SIGs in between investing in other people’s startups.
The slides may be posted soon, I’ll post a link when available.

§ Yes I know the SDTC made a failed attempt at brand extension and let their premium domain name lapse, but we’ll ignore that.

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