4G's true-broadband data speeds promise to deliver a dramatically better user experience across our rapidly proliferating field of smartphone devices. We can look forward to vastly-improved streaming video, augmented reality travel apps and contextual mobile advertising. Vital to all these, and many other applications, is high-performance location, and that is where 4G is positioned to have a significant impact.
High-performance location is more than just about accuracy; it also encompasses advances in the location's time-to-fix, consistency, reliability and battery efficiency. According to a June 2011 report by market research firm Strategy Analytics, location based services revenue (including mobile advertising) is expected to reach $10 billion by 2016. By introducing 4G with high-performance location that is seamless and transparent to the customer, wireless operators can claim their share of that revenue if they develop a well-thought-out location strategy to mirror their data and voice network strategies. 4G will make location based services more useful, pervasive and entertaining, and an integral part of the mobile user experience.
More than just building a data and voice network
Over the past year, wireless industry discussions of 4G have revolved around two concepts: (1) 4G based on LTE or WiMAX, as defined by the ITU standard, offering a data transmission rate approaching 100 Mbps and able to compete with broadband wired connections; and (2) '4G' (termed faux-G by some) based on marketing claims by network operators offering modestly higher data speeds than currently available on 3G. U.S. wireless operators have pursued 4G technology strategies with varying degrees of success:
• Verizon launched a 4G LTE network in December 2010 and introduced its first 4G LTE smartphone in March 2011.
• AT&T has acknowledged that its 4G LTE network will not rival Verizon's until 2013 at the earliest, and will not be sped up much by the acquisition of T-Mobile, who has aggressively marketed its HSPA+ network as '4G.'
• Sprint's embrace of 4G WiMAX via partner Clearwire gave it a head start in 4G coverage, but it remains to be seen whether Sprint's WiMAX technology selection will eventually morph into LTE to fit with the rest of the industry.
However, a 4G data and voice technology strategy alone isn't enough; operators must have an overall 4G product strategy. It's wonderful that data speeds are getting faster, but without more advanced applications to enhance the user experience (and increase revenues), 4G is solely about network bragging rights ("my network is faster than your network") and further serves to commoditize the wireless operator as a "dumb pipe." Many location application providers are already treating operators in this way, by offering free applications while deriving revenues from other parts of their business model, such as advertising associated with search. In addition, the LBS focus is shifting to user plane solutions, further threatening the operator's position in the location value chain. This trend will continue unless the operators leverage the capabilities of their networks to provide high-performance, integral location solutions.
4G + location = $$
High-accuracy wireless location offers operators a prime opportunity to develop targeted, context-aware applications, but the availability of location information must become fully seamless and transparent. Contextually relevant content and offers (e.g. mobile coupons, driving directions) must be served up proactively. Once location becomes thoroughly integrated with other applications (e.g. presence notifications for social networks), it will become something subscribers get used to, then come to rely upon, and ultimately, will pay for. However, operators must plan for the significant technology and product developments that will impact location services in the 4G era:
• Location technology advancements, such as identifying location on the vertical 'z' axis (elevation) will enable more advanced services, including 3D, that depend on a granular understanding of a subscriber's location, such as inside a downtown skyscraper.
• The continued growth of tablets and smartphones and increasing reliance on cloud computing will continue to drive data traffic over wireless connections, justifying the investment in 4G networks and solidifying the importance of mobile location.
• Superior location methods, such as RF Pattern Matching, which works particularly well in locating subscribers indoors and in dense urban environments, may prompt smart operators to consider upgrading from their current location technologies during the move to 4G.
'Where' will determine 'who', 'what', 'when' and 'how'
As 4G networks increasingly dominate how we communicate, the focus of the rest of the mobile ecosystem will continue to be on improving the mobile user experience. Nothing is more central to this than understanding a subscriber's location (the 'where'), with precision and reliability. This knowledge will drive all else, including who one meets via a dating application, what offer a retailer decides to advertise, when friends decide to congregate at a local restaurant, and how one navigates rush hour traffic. 4G ensures the role of wireless location in all our lives.
Martin Feuerstein is CTO at Polaris Wireless.