Location-Based Services in the WLAN World

It’s Saturday, shopping day, and you’re off to the mall. Don’t forget to pick up a wireless flyer at the Information kiosk on your way in. You’ll need it to access all the location specials as you roam around the stores.

Wireless flyer? Location specials?

Okay, I made those terms up. And the things they describe don’t actually exist yet. A wireless flyer is or will – might be? – be a stripped-down PDA equipped with a Wi-Fi network interface card.

A location special is an electronic coupon or ad sent over a wireless network to PDA-equipped patrons based on where they are in a mall.

The wireless network? An 802.11-based “mall area network” (MAN?) with access points deployed to provide coverage throughout a shopping area.

If you can believe Vipul Sawhney, vice president of technology at location-based services developer LocatioNet Inc. (www.locationet.net) of New York City, these things will exist – possibly as early as the end of next year.

“We’ve thought a lot about the mall m-commerce opportunity,” he says. “And we think it can be very large. It opens up m-commerce not just to big corporations that can afford to put banners on Yahoo!, but also to mom-and-pop operations.”

Sawhney, who is speaking at this month’s 802.11 Planet conference in Santa Clara CA in a session titled Synergies: 802.11, Telephony & Other Wireless Technologies, believes malls will set up Wi-Fi-based wireless networks in part to take advantage of the kind of location-based m-commerce applications his company hopes to develop and market.

Location-based services have mostly been talked about to this point in the context of mobile networks. And Sawhney admits LocatioNet’s main focus is developing applications and platforms for that space.

Mobile operators are currently trialing some of them, but location-based services will not see broad deployment until a critical mass of user terminals and networks have location-determination technology built in.

In the meantime, LocatioNet is working on four main applications:

Point of interest services let mobile terminal users find location-sensitive information about places and things of interest. A subscriber could, for example, ask for a library and, based on his location, get information about the nearest branch, including precise routing instructions.

Find a friend services will integrate with instant messaging services and let people know not only when their buddies are online, but also when they’re nearby and where exactly they are.

Related to the Find a Friend concept is the Where are you service. It would allow a parent, for example, to determine where her children are – especially, Sawhney suggests, in the event of a September 11-style emergency.

Fleet management services allow companies to wirelessly monitor and track their vehicles, ships and employees.

“These are the three main applications,” Sawhney says. “The rest are derivations.”

Location-based m-commerce – a sometimes controversial concept because it raises troubling privacy issues – will be in the next wave of location-based services most analysts believe.

In a mall environment, retailers could send out ads based on the customer’s location and/or personal profile. A cafe could send out an electronic coupon to any patron who walked within a certain distance of its facility, for example.

A department store could send out ads based on the department the patron was entering. Retailers could even try counter-advertising: Home Depot, for example, might send out an electronic sale offer to any customer entering the Sears tool department.

The value to advertisers, Sawhney says, is that it allows them to be much more precise in targeting their advertising.

“Initially, we saw in print and TV that the same basic ad went out to millions,” he notes. “Then we saw targeting get much more specific with the rise of the Internet. Now ad messages could be sent based on personal profiles.”

“But that still wasn’t specific enough. The click-through rate on most Internet ads is still only about two per cent. What location-based services offer is that they pinpoint exactly where the customers is.”

Sawhney believes the appeal of wireless location-based services may be strong enough to get malls not only to set up Wi-Fi networks in their facilities but also purchase fleets of stripped-down “dumb terminal-style” PDAs to distribute to customers when they enter the mall.

He admits, though, that he doesn’t know of any malls that are considering doing any of this. And it wouldn’t be his company’s role to sell them on the idea anyway, he points out.

LocatioNet is a technology company. It develops “the base architecture” that network operators – like the imagined Wi-Fi mall network operator – could deploy to enable location based services. “We sell a middleware platform,” Sawhney says.

So is this all just blue sky then – just wishful thinking on LocatioNet’s part?

Certainly, the idea of Wi-Fi networks in malls is bound to have great appeal to a LocatioNet. As Sawhney points out, the higher bandwidth of 802.11 (versus existing mobile) networks means advertisers could send out more satisfying, media-rich content.

And location-based service providers wouldn’t have to wait for the advent of 2.5 and 3G mobile networks to find an environment in which to deploy their services effectively.

In fact, Sawhney speculates, as others have, that 802.11 could entirely displace too-expensive 3G technologies.

Already some Asian cities are reported to be working on city-wide Wi-Fi network deployments. If LocatioNet’s location based services worked in a mall environment, clearly they would work that much better in a city-wide network.

There are also airport applications, Sawhney points out. At the simplest level, giving frazzled travelers detailed location-based routing to their gates would be a welcome service – especially in town-size facilities such as JFK in New York and O’Hare in Chicago.

LocatioNet, meanwhile, is network agnostic. Its technologies will work on virtually any wireless network infrastructure. The mall m-commerce idea is really just an extension of concepts the company is pursuing in the mobile space.

As Sawhney says, “It’s just one of the things out there to talk about it.”

Maybe. But file it under “Next year or later.”

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