Managing Assets (All the Way to the Bank)
Tracking and location-based solutions are affordable, more available than ever and driving efficiencies to profitable results.
By Arielle Emmett
Like pennies from heaven, global positioning system (GPS) coordinates now fall from satellites in the sky to tiny cell phones on earth. Streams of GPS data flow invisibly from cars and trucks to police stations and enterprise dispatch centers, transforming raw numbers into maps, turn-by-turn driving directions, timesheets and even route optimization and customer invoices. Employers are also using locator technologies to track mobile workforces, vehicles and other heavy-equipment assets. Both commercial and consumer appetites for location-based services (LBS) are spurring the growth of handset-based GPS at growth rates even faster than those for installed, in-vehicle units.
Is all the tracking necessary? Is it private? How useful are locator systems in improving operational efficiencies and corporate bottom lines? Which locator systems will dominate the handset and in-vehicle markets as consumers and smaller commercial outfits hop on the mobile LBS bandwagon?
Industry consultants are debating these questions as growth numbers boom. Telecom companies such as AT&T and Verizon have already surrendered telephone data to the U.S.
government, producing a huge consumer and media uproar over privacy rights. At the same time, economics is forcing a harder look at locator systems for many different applications, both public and private, while employers and employees draw battle lines over monitoring and control, says Kathleen Pierz, a consultant and chief analyst with the Pierz Group, a telecom research consultancy in Clarkston, Mich.
“With the cost of gas at more than $3.00 a gallon, it pays to have mobile locator services to know immediately where the closest Kinkos is,” she observes. In addition, a tighter job market may mean more employer control. “With the way the economy is now, I might be willing, as an employee, to have my boss know where my every move is in a company car, because your next great new job isn’t all that easy to come by.”
Too Much Big Brother?
David H. Williams, CEO of E911-LBS Consulting, in Wilton, Conn., agrees with Pierz. Privacy could become the Achilles’ heel of workforce tracking, he acknowledges, and yet, “Folks like salespeople will be less resistant to LBS if they can make 6.2 sales visits each day instead of 5.1 [thanks to routing optimization].”
Though many vendors claim that LBS is much more readily accepted than before, analysts and vendors agree this is only the tip of the iceberg. “People want to know where their assets are, and the assets can be mobile vehicles, equipment or personnel,” explains Brian Riley, CEO of Ashland, N.C.–based Homeland Integrated Security Systems, a company that makes Cyber Tracker single-board GPS products that enable everything from tugboat navigation to public safety GPS and the tracking of juvenile offenders.
“Since 9/11, people have been much more attuned to security issues, and the offshoot has helped stimulate the whole security concern and increase in GPS as a security-based product,” says Riley In-vehicle fleet tracking has been a reality in many long-haul transportation applications for more than a decade. Qualcomm originally led the pack with its OmniTRACS tracking solution. Today, local fleet tracking is growing more than 25 percent a year, according to Clem Driscoll, principal of C.J. Driscoll & Associates, a research firm that completed a landmark mobile resource management survey of 160 companies in 2005.
“There are now about a million local fleet tracking installations along with 400,000 long-haul trucks,” says Driscoll. “But there is also a lot of growth in handset-based GPS. Our data show that growth over time will be greater than the growth of installed [fixed, in-vehicle units], and the only caveat to that is whether commercial customers are going to be satisfied with the performance and reliability of handset-based solutions.”
Many factors are affecting locator service growth. The advent of cheap handset-based GPS has lowered the pricing/hardware barrier from approximately $1,200 for “black box” in-vehicle units to roughly $150 for tiny chips installed inside an ordinary cell phone or PDA. Carriers such as Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless have already rolled out CDMA-based cell phones equipped with A-GPS (Assisted GPS), a Qualcomm chipset that uses network assistance to pinpoint handset location rather than pure GPS, which requires exterior location and satellite calibration/line-of-sight. Moreover, carriers are expanding 1xRTT and GPRS networks to provide broader coverage for data than earlier CDPD networks. Another factor is public awareness: GPS subscribers are able to attain lower ROI thresholds and higher rates of efficiency in public and private sectors alike.
Mapping, Directions and Mobile Workforce Tracking
By far, directions and mapping are the most desired location-based applications today. Many handset applications now include turn-by-turn directions accompanied by audio prompts, rather than displaying a map on the cell phone screen. Second in line is mobile workforce management, says Mary Foltz, director of location and mobility services at Sprint Nextel; historically, Nextel was a pioneer in business-to-business locator services with its iDEN network. “This second category is growing fast,” says Foltz. “In terms of volume, it’s probably comparable to navigation services [in regard to] overall growth.”
The important differentiator between these two categories is that mapping and directions in-vehicle or on handsets provide a service and convenience to mobile employees on the road, whereas locator services are used to provide interaction with office applications, messaging and access to local directories of stores, suppliers, transport and services. In the second category, employees are no longer using locators to find or track services; they are being tracked.
However, perceptions about LBS are changing, says Chris Bradley, general manager for U.S. wireless business at Navman, a global supplier of in-vehicle GPS tracking and fleet management solutions and one of the first to use GSM/GPRS technology. “Originally, vehicle management was a dot on the map. It’s moved from that to being a tool for productivity to improve business processes, rather than simply the tracking side of things.” With the advent of lower-cost and higher capacity cellular networks providing location assistance, Navman has added messaging, dispatch, on-board maps and turn-by-turn voice guidance, among other tools, to enhance the value of the fleet-tracking experience.
It’s true that some mobile workers still find location tracking an intrusive way for employers to keep moment-by-moment tabs on worker productivity and usage of corporate assets. “Drivers can find ways of defeating GPS, such as stuffing a handset under a seat to interfere with a signal or playing around with the GPS software,” acknowledges Todd Krautkremer, CEO of Gearworks. “On the other hand, businesses are looking at ways of understanding those 30 extra hours of overtime. With the price of gasoline and the demand for efficiencies, we’re recognizing LBS as a fact of life.” //
Arielle Emmett is the author of Wireless Data for the Enterprise: Making Sense of Wireless Business.
> Application developers such as Gearworks are providing GPS-enabled in-vehicle and handset-based mobile workforce management solutions under the product name eTrace to carriers such as Verizon Wireless (which privately rebrands the offering as Verizon Field Force Manager) and Sprint Nextel. Although each carrier’s offering is somewhat different, all involve a hosted Internet/monitoring component and mapping software to pinpoint the location of mobile workers. Unlike other proprietary black box solutions, “We provide an open interface with a variety of systems in-vehicle, on handsets or a combination of both,” says Todd Krautkremer, CEO of Gearworks. Hosted services allow customers such as Rotor Rooter, Pepsi Bottling and UPS Logistics to integrate GPS tracking, dispatch, messaging and timecards, plus back-office systems and applications.
> The Maui Police Department uses a geographic information system (GIS) from ESRI to map E-911 calls. The system, which utilizes scripts from ESRI and additional E-911 PowerMap dispatch applications software from Positron Public Safety Systems, allows dispatchers to track the locations of people calling in emergencies from cell phones in extremely remote locations, such as at sea or in remote hiking and camping areas. “The system is essentially a GIS-driven, local-based service,” says Bill Madeiros, GIS manager of the Maui County department of management. “The x,y coordinate data comes from the cell phone’s GPS and gives the 911 dispatcher a location,” which is then pinpointed using the GIS technology on a highly detailed topographical map. Says Madeiros, “Without this technology the caller would have to verbally describe the location, which is easy if there is a discernible address and if you are calm and collected, but not so easy if you are in an unfamiliar area or are dazed after an accident.”
> TeleNav is now offering a TeleNavTrack GPS solution on the RIM BlackBerry 7520 and 2100i to provide turn-by-turn GPS navigation and tracking capabilities. It touts the solution as both a direction finder and an online management tool that allows “managers to track the GPS location of mobile resources such as delivery trucks, work crews and service technicians.” The BlackBerry solution is already being used by Diagnostic Labs, a medical diagnostics company in Glendale, Calif., to track 320 field technicians who collect 14,000 medical samples daily across a 200 square mile area. Dispatchers use the solution to track technicians’ locations and improve response times to customers. The company claims that technician productivity has doubled, shaving 400 hours from overtime budgets every month.