Evolution of Mobile Positioning and Location-based Services (LBS)

Mobile positioning and location-based services (LBS) have come a long way since the FCC order for phase II of 9-1-1 dictated that cellular operators provide location of emergency callers within a certain degree of location accuracy.  This caused carriers in the USA to support two technical solutions.  One solution is Assisted GPS (A-GPS) and another is Time Division of Arrival (TDOA).  AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile went with T-DOA to avoid handset upgrade costs while Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS went with A-GPS.  In the late 1990’s, there were very few commercial LBS applications and most usage of mobile positioning was for supporting 9-1-1 calls.  During this time frame, almost all cellular carrier infrastructure utilized Control Plane solutions that relied upon the use of expensive network hardware, carrier controlled signaling (via SS7), and the use of intelligent network technologies.

Today, nearly every new phone that ships contains a GPS chip.  Furthermore, the penetration of so called smart phones is very high and most everyone that has one also has a data plan.  This enables many new location-based applications that are very flat in their operational structure.  They rely on use of the so called User Plane that operates in a client-server framework using only the client software, GPS chip, communication (over Internet Protocol), and server interactions.  This very flat, carrier dis-intermediating model is in contrast with what was thought about a decade below would be one in which the carriers would maintain control of access and management via their Control Plane architectures.

While the mobile operators continue to use the Control Plane investment made initially for supporting 9-1-1 only, some also leverage it to offer mobile positioning, via so called Location as a Service (LaaS) location aggregators that broker location.  However, the User Plane is a competing approach that does not require carrier involvement or the involvement of a third-party location broker.  A good example would be Google Navigation.

The first two stages in the evolution of commercial location services have been location enhanced applications (such as local information like closest pizza) and location-based applications (such as navigation) in which location is intrinsic to the application.  In former, location arguably makes the application better (but it could stand by itself) and the latter represents applications that only make sense with location.

The current stage of evolution is manifest in the expansion of ways in which location information can be obtained as well as an explosion of location enhanced and location-based services.  This is due in part to the advent of the location brokering model.  A broker is a party that arranges transactions between a buyer and a seller, and gets a commission when the deal is executed.  Location brokering can be defined purchasing location data from one party (the carriers most prevalently) and selling to others (content and application providers).  An example of a location broker is Loc-Aid, who buys location from the carriers and sells it to various customers.

The future of location will be location becoming an assumed part of not only all applications but also even the mobile network operators’ business operations (such as customer care) and support for various compliance issues (such as law enforcement, public safety and homeland security). Mobile network operators will come to the realization that presence and location are the best value-added service enabler that they can leverage to increase customer and business value.

The future of location will also involve convergence with a few other areas including identity and privacy management, presence, augmented reality, social networks, and user generated content.

To realize this future, the current business models and approach will evolve from one of the current combination of silo, monolithic User Plane and simple location broker approaches to an ecosystem that provides pervasive location mediation and ultimately federation of location, GIS data, location data, and application data.

Whereas the current location brokering ecosystem facilitates brokering of only location data (Lat/Long), a mediation ecosystem will facilitate transactions that involve more than just location itself.

The mediation function in telecom terms pertains to a function that routes or acts on information passing between network elements and network operations. Location mediation is a function of managing location data that passes between network elements and network operations.  Location data includes everything from geo-coded data to attribute data associated with location-enhanced and location-based services.  The location mediator ensures that each party in the ecosystem exchanges data with each other, as pre-determined based on teaming agreements, as well as ensuring the AAA (Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting) function.

Beyond mediation lies a future of location federation.  Federation can be viewed as a meta-version of mediation in which there is a root-level mediator that ties together all of the other mediators within a federation.  This enables the exchange of location data, at the appropriate level, even between competing parties.  Whereas Google would never share certain data with Yahoo! directly, they could trust a mediator (or mediator of mediators at the root level) to manage the exchange for them.

A federated model will have many advantages including the ability to support syndication of service provider, content/application provider, enterprise and consumer user generated content.  Exchange of location data, including mapping geo-coded content, will be at its extreme as it can be exchanged across virtually any party, so long as pre-determined business rules at met.  It is the role of the mediator to ensure that business rules, such as access, privacy, and service level agreements, are met.  It is also the role of the mediator to ensure that proper billing and settlement occurs.  Another important role of the mediator in a federated location model is to ensure proper verification occurs including authenticity of content, verification of business/personal identity, presence and location of user.

The evolution to a federated location mediation model will not happen overnight.  There will be some fits and starts and experimentation with different approaches.  Ultimately this model will be enabled by introduction of certain key technologies and solutions.  It will also be dependent on a more mature location services environment and a realization on the part of the mobile network operators that bearer services will ultimately become pure commodities.

Editor’s Note: The author’s exposure to a wide range of technologies and applications over a 23+ year career has equipped him with some specialized experience in the areas of intelligent networks/applications (e.g., mobile messaging and marketing, prepaid wireless), NextGen networks (e.g., IMS, SDP, and NGN OSS/BSS systems), and mobile location services/technology. An Eogogics Principal Instructor, he teaches our courses on NextGen and Location Based Services. Eogogics offers several courses on mobile positioning technologies and location based services: Positioning and Location Workshop, Advanced Workshop on Positioning and Location, 4G LTE & UMTS/HSPA Location Based Services to Support E911 Requirements, IP, Location and Geo-Location Technologies for Law Enforcement, Intelligence, and Public Safety. We also offer a host of research publications on these topics. Our courses and research reports cover both the technical and business issues of mobile location technologies/services.