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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 14:15 GMT
Mobiles navigate the future
Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

GPS phone
Consumers in Japan and the Us already have GPS on their phones
Satellite navigation is going places.

In the first nine months of 2006, nearly 12 million Global Positioning System (GPS) devices were sold across the world, according to research firm Canalys.

In 2007, this is forecast to more than double to nearly 28 million, with Europeans the most likely to want to know exactly where they are at any time.

At the moment, most of these devices are specially designed units or handhelds incorporating downloaded software.

Most are used by car drivers navigating around town, sailors on the ocean wave or by ramblers on blustery hillsides.

But all this is set to change.

According to the mobile industry, 2007 is the year when GPS will finally lock on to phones across Europe.

"GPS has been in the domain of the early adopters to date, but in 2007 it will come to the masses," said Marcus Dacombe, head of product marketing at handset manufacturer Nokia.

And when this happens, mobile phone users will be able to take advantage of a range of new services, from restaurant finders to systems that accurately plot their morning run.

Clear run

GPS-enabled phones are nothing new to the millions of mobile users throughout the US and Asia. Eighty-three million GPS-enabled handsets were shipped last year, according to IMS Research.

Many of those barriers that did exist have been addressed
Mike Short, Mobile Data Association

Countries like Japan are well known for their early adoption of technology, while in the US, the mass up-take of GPS was down to legislation.

In 1999, the Federal Communications Commission pushed through an act that requires all handsets to incorporate the technology. The E911 system, as it is known, allows the emergency services to pinpoint the exact location of a mobile phone caller.

Although GPS remains a passive technology for most in the US, only to be activated in times of emergency, the legislative imperative pushed the technology ahead and into the mainstream.

At the same time, Europe remained lost.

Unlike the US and Japan, which use a mobile standard known as CDMA, Europe's networks run on a totally different system called GSM.

Developments in the US and Japan could not simply be rolled out across Europe. Obstacles overcome elsewhere remained in Europe.

But now, according to Mike Short, chairman of the Mobile Data Association, the road ahead is clearing.

"Many of those barriers that did exist have been addressed," he said. "We have seen a lot of progress in the last year."

Helping hand

Developments in chip design and the increased processing power of mobile phones means that GPS can now more easily be incorporated into a handset.

Galileo satellite
GPS relies on a network of orbiting satellites

In addition, a new technology called assisted-GPS (AGPS), in-part developed off the back of the E911 programme, does away with the frustrating "lag-times" traditionally associated with GPS devices as they search for satellites.

AGPS takes advantage of the cellular network to speed up the process of finding a location.

Mobile operators divide the whole country into thousands of individual geographic areas known as "cells".

At the heart of each of these is a base station or mast, which communicates by radio with individual handsets within the cell.

In urban areas such as London, base stations are usually built about 200-500m (650-1,300ft) apart.

This cell information can be used to get a rough fix on the location of a phone user. Once this is known, a computer on the network can relay information to the mobile about which satellites it should be visible to in the sky.

The phone then only has to search for signals from specific satellites instead of scanning for all 32 in the GPS constellation.

AGPS is particularly useful for pinpointing locations in "urban canyons", under heavy tree cover, or even indoors.

Imaginative solutions

This new level of accuracy has allowed a host of "location-based services" to be developed in the US and Japan, which could now come to Europe.

These include "buddy finders" that alert you when a friend is in the same area or systems that track your morning run to show you how many kilometres you have covered and how many calories you have burned.

It still requires a bit of faith particularly in urban settings
Jonathan Raper, City University

"You can also have turn-by-turn navigation, family locators and maps with points of interest," said Shekhar Somanath from mobile GPS chip manufacturer Qualcomm.

Other proposals include location-based advertising, mobile blogging, location-based games and services that will allow you to geo-tag photographs with their locations.

"We just cannot predict all of the applications that will come about," said Mr Short. "We are making a capability available."

One boom sector in Japan and the US is for services that allow parents to track their children through their mobile phone. Entertainment giant Disney has even launched a service.

But privacy experts have already spoken out about the potential to abuse systems such as these for tracking and inappropriate use.

As a result, mobile operators have drawn up a code of conduct for all location-based services.

Power in hand

Riding this wave of new services are a raft of new handsets from mobile manufacturers that are now cheap enough for operators to offer them as upgrades or bundled with contracts.

In Europe alone, the number of GPS-enabled mobile phones is expected to soar from around three million last year to nearly 70 million in 2010, according to IMS Research. Globally, the figure will be close to 300 million.

The Galileo system of satellites
A European Commission and European Space Agency project
30 satellites to be launched in batches by end of 2010
Will work alongside US GPS and Russian Glonass systems
Promises real-time positioning down to less than a metre
Guaranteed under all but most extreme circumstances
Suitable for safety-critical roles where lives depend on service

But this meteoric rise will not be a completely smooth ride.

The new mobile phones will be battery hungry, particularly when they offer turn-by-turn navigation like the systems used in cars.

Consequently, manufacturers are working hard to pack more power into handsets.

In addition, the accuracy of GPS is still not quite good enough for all applications to work in all areas.

"It still requires a bit of faith particularly in urban settings," said Jonathan Raper, professor of geographic information science at London's City University.

One development on the horizon that could solve this is Europe's GPS equivalent, known as Galileo.

Life's necessities

The system's additional 30 satellites will offer greater coverage and precision than the existing GPS system alone.

"It's going to massively improve positional quality and accuracy," said Professor Raper.

The joint venture between the European Union and the European Space Agency should be launched in 2010 - but it is already behind schedule.

As a result, the mobile industry cannot start to prepare for the new system.

"Until we see more deliverables from the Galileo community, it is very difficult to plan for," said Mr Short.

The system will require new technology to be incorporated into mobile phones, particularly in mobile chip sets.

But regardless of potential hurdles with existing and future systems, some people believe the incorporation of GPS into mobile handsets is destined to happen in part because of the sheer number of mobile users - nearly half the world's population - and for some more deeply-rooted reasons.

"Time and place are the two most fundamental systems for framing our lives," said Professor Raper.

"Today, everyone has a watch to tell the time, but it's a glaring omission that we don't have a universal device for telling us where we are.

"Mobile phones are the only way of doing that."

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