Cell phone companies adding tracking abilities

For a growing number of cell phone users, it’s not just a question of “Can you can hear me now?” It’s also “Can you find me now?”

Increasingly, cell phones are gaining technology that lets customers track a cell phone user’s location, helping them figure out where they are and where they’re going, or where their employees or loved ones are roaming.

“For individuals, it’s, ‘I want to locate my child. I’d like to find where they are after 10 p.m. I want to ping them,’ ” said Kenneth Hyers, an ABI Research analyst.

“Same thing for employers. They want to know who’s the closest technician to route to a location to help out. You have services like this that are really catching the imagination.”

Hyers expects a lot of location-based services to come out in the next few years.

“We’ve moved quickly from a walking pace to a run,” Hyers said.

The movement is being led by businesses that benefit from knowing where everybody and everything are throughout the day.

The days of dispatchers plotting the locations of airport shuttles with magnets on a metal map are gone. Now, drivers simply turn on their Nextel cell phones.

SuperShuttle dispatcher Terry Ogden keeps track of the the company's vehicles at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Green blocks on the computer screen represent a SuperShuttle vehicle.

Using global positioning system technology in the phones, companies can locate vans and direct them more efficiently to customers. Drivers – looking at their cell phones’ screens – can see what trips are waiting and can pick the ones they want to take.

Drivers use the phone to process credit card payments, tell the dispatch office when they’ve started or ended work, when they’re available to pick up another customer and where they are.

“The current system is a big improvement over the old system,” said Randy Curnutt, a driver for SuperShuttle in Texas.

Until recently, only Nextel Communications Inc. focused on cell phones that gave users the ability to track where the cell phones – and the people using them – were located.

Nextel leading the way

But other cellular companies are jumping in, hoping to cash in on the desire of businesses and individuals to know the location of cell phone users.

So far, it’s largely been business and government users, such as transportation companies, couriers, garbage haulers or service companies such as plumbers or air-conditioning repairers.

Nextel has led the way by offering a variety of products, Hyers said. But Sprint Corp. recently joined the game with its “411” service that lets cell phone users ask for directions, and he expects Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless to begin offering their own services by the end of the year. Among the top five, only T-Mobile USA has no location-based products in the works.

GPS and its system of geostationary satellites have prompted uses far beyond the original military purposes.

However, a federal mandate requiring cell phones to automatically tell 911 centers where the caller is located has speeded adoption.

That can be accomplished through ground-based triangulation, in which the phone’s location is determined by figuring its relative distance from various cell stations. But most large cellular companies appear to be embracing the GPS method.

Nextel has had GPS technology in every phone since November 2002. Sprint and Verizon phones also contain GPS technology, allowing them to provide locator services if they desire. For Sprint, the first toe in the water was Roadside Rescue, which includes the ability to call 411 to get directions or emergency help.

“It’s on an option basis. But it’s something that we think customers want,” Sprint spokeswoman Genevieve Billy said.

Phone options

Cellular phone companies are taking different approaches to using technology that tracks the location of cell phones:

¢ Nextel’s cell phones have contained chips with a global positioning system for several years. It offers customers a number of services, and third-party companies use its technology in services they sell.

¢ Sprint and Verizon phones have GPS capabilities, and Sprint offers a service that gives consumers directions. Verizon plans to offer GPS-based services later this year.

¢ Cingular is expected to offer at least one phone with GPS technology later this year, with services to exploit those capabilities.

¢ T-Mobile has announced no plans for location-based services, but it is analyzing the potential market.

While Verizon Wireless does not offer any location-based products as yet, “we’re working on it, and it is coming in the future,” spokesman Jimmy Duvall said.

Cingular has an extensive list of customers who use its location-based technology, but the equipment is attached to the snowplow, garbage truck, 18-wheeler truck or other equipment rather than being cell phone-based.

SuperShuttle began using Nextel-supplied cell phones in April 2003, replacing a proprietary system that required SuperShuttle to maintain its own network of antennae, transmitters and other equipment.

It worked well enough, operations director Rex Gomillion said, but it was up to SuperShuttle to keep the network going.

“Obviously, the transmitters cost thousands and thousands of dollars each,” he said. “The transmitter site rentals cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars per month each, and there was the upkeep, maintenance and the calls to me at 3 o’clock in the morning saying, ‘The transmitters are down – what do you want me to do?’ “

Now, SuperShuttle doesn’t have to worry about the network, leaving that to Nextel. And it can track its vans and cars anywhere in the Nextel network, while the old system was limited to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Business protection

For some users, the GPS systems help protect them from consumer complaints. San Diego, which has equipped its garbage trucks with locator technology from Cingular, can check the validity of a customer claim that the garbage collectors skipped their house.

One initial concern for many employees is the idea of having the company always looking over their shoulders.

Mary Foltz, director of location solutions for Nextel, said she was “surprised and delighted” to hear of many cases where employees – initially concerned about having the system checking their location – found that the technology protected them.

The owner of a New Orleans limo company told her recently about a situation in which the driver delivered members of a wedding party very late to the church. The passengers claimed that the driver got lost; however, a review of the GPS records showed the bars and bathroom stops the group had demanded along the way.

“The father of the bride did have to pay the bill,” Foltz said.

Nextel has expanded its offerings beyond businesses, now offering products that let consumers find their location and get turn-by-turn driving or walking directions, including a product that can help backpackers in wilderness areas.

“We were very surprised to see how popular these services have become with individual users,” Foltz said.

Hyers, of ABI Research, said he expected location-based services to become much more popular in the coming years.

“I believe that LBS-enabled applications will be as ubiquitous in the mobile environment a decade from now as the Internet is for many of us today,” he said.