When SARS swept through Hong Kong last spring, some jittery citizens turned not just to surgical masks but also to cellphones for protection against the killer virus, dialing up a text-messaging service for the addresses of the closest contaminated buildings.
THE POPSCI OPINION POLL
Would you subscribe to a cellphone service that broadcasts your location to other users?
In Tokyo, meanwhile, Japanese singles can punch up profiles of prospective mates strolling the same stretch of sidewalk. In Helsinki, cell-slinging Finns stalk
one another in a game called BotFighters. The object: To "kill" opponents with text-message missiles when they trot into range.
Welcome to the world of location-based services, exploited by cellphones capable of broadcasting their precise whereabouts. From directions to dating, applications supported by this technology are booming across Asia and Europe. "It gives you a crystal ball into what may happen in the U.S.," says industry analyst Tole Hart.
Hyped for years as a way for retailers to beam ads to passersby, location-based services have failed to take off here; U.S. carriers have resisted due to the pricey network upgrades needed to make them possible. Now the carriers have no choice. To improve wireless 911 service, the FCC is requiring carriers to be able to pinpoint subscribers to within 100 meters by December 2005.
Companies are turning to two vastly different solutions to meet the mandate. Nextel and Verizon Wireless have opted for a scheme in which handsets with built-in GPS chips retrieve location information from orbiting satellites. The technology, dubbed Assisted GPS, also relies on the cellular network to do some of the tracking. AT&T Wireless, Cingular and T-Mobile have employed another technique, called Uplink Time Difference of Arrival, which triangulates a caller's location using three or more cell towers. Although slightly less precise than Assisted GPS, it works with older bricklike mobiles.
The first major wave of location services could beam to the U.S. as early
as Christmas, when 44 percent of the nation's 149.2 million cellphone subscribers are expected to be traceable, according to the research firm In-Stat/MDR. Initial offerings are likely to include ways to find the nearest ATM machine or coffee shop. And the Los Angeles company Moviso is developing a location-based cellphone dating service that will be available in some U.S. cities by year's end. Offbeat games—and privacy complaints—are sure to follow.