Ideas 2003: GPS finds new business

Ideas 2003: GPS finds new business

Using a global positioning system to pinpoint your location--or that of your employees, vehicles or even buildings--on the world map isn't tough

Using a global positioning system to pinpoint your location--or that of your employees, vehicles or even buildings--on the world map isn't tough. Just trot down to the local sporting goods store, and you can have a GPS for US$150 or less. Getting that GPS to integrate wirelessly with your back-end applications, however, requires considerably more work--and money. But soon, taking advantage of those same GPS features that can help a lost hiker get out of the woods could be as easy as paying a few extra dollars on your cell phone bills.

Cell phone carriers are creating the federally mandated Enhanced 911, or E911, system that will let emergency workers (and criminal investigators) identify the location of new GPS-ready cell phones. The technology behind that same system will also let the carriers provide relatively low-cost, easy-to-deploy location-based services. The benefits of these services to companies--such as improved customer service, faster response times and more efficient deployment--may be great, but the implementation hassles (such as having to buy dedicated GPS hardware and special software and perform custom integration work) have tended to relegate such services to big logistics companies and huge field-service organizations.

Greg Santoro, vice president for Internet and wireless services at Nextel Communications Inc., says the new GPS technology will allow his company to offer applications like a Web-based dispatch service that could be up and running in a day or two using the employees' existing cell phones. Such services would be inexpensive enough even for a small landscaper or plumbing supply house. Large companies could find themselves in a stronger position to argue the ROI of a system that uses cell phones that the company already owns combined with software managed by a known provider--the cellular carrier.

Bob Elfanbaum, CEO at wireless systems management software provider Asynchrony Solutions Inc. in St. Louis, says some customers are interested in GPS-based services. One, a large insurance provider, which he declines to name, envisions multiple scenarios for using GPS information. "Think of a hailstorm over a large area with a lot of crops," Elfanbaum says. "You could just walk the field and transmit the coordinates of crop damage." And you could do it without buying dedicated hardware for every insurance agent.

Despite the obvious benefits, there are still hurdles in the way of mass GPS service adoption. Santoro notes that carriers have to meet the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's E911 mandate before offering commercial services, which will postpone the introduction of such services at least until the first quarter of 2003. Then both companies, the wireless carriers and the government will have to address privacy concerns. How will employees react when their every movement--whether it be running across town to their favorite lunch spot or stopping at a competitor's office to drop off a résumé--could be monitored by the boss? And how does one guarantee that the same system that gets an ambulance to you after a car accident won't be used by the government to track your movements overseas?

None of the questions should be deal-breakers, however. The power of GPS services is too strong to ignore. "This is not Buck Rogers-type technology," says Bob Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City. "I think it's really here."

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