UK lags behind on mobile tracking

UK mobile phone operators are facing growing pressure from business and legislators to speed up the roll-out of advanced handset tracking technologies.

Mobile phone operators are facing growing pressure from business and legislators to speed up the roll-out of advanced handset tracking technologies.

The European Union is considering a directive to make the provision of accurate location data to the emergency services compulsory, mirroring a move by the US government that has forced the hand of its net-work operators.

Location-based mobile services track the position of individual phones to varying degrees of accuracy depending on how advanced is the technology used on the network and in handsets.

While some basic services are available via WAP – for example, allowing users to find nearby restaurants – the UK and Europe have slipped way behind the US. This has fuelled suspicions that operators – which have invested huge sums of money in 3G phone licences and the infrastructure to support 3G – are reluctant to spend more until next-generation networks are complete.

Progress in the US has been driven by a Federal requirement known as E911 that accurate location information is available to the emergency services. This has pushed operators into adopting systems that can pinpoint a handset’s position to within 100m.

Colin Ashcroft of UK-based Cambridge Positioning Systems said the drive to meet legislation had put the US in the lead in accurate handset location. ‘Traditionally it has been Europe that has led the way in mobile technologies, but in this case it has been the US,’ said Ashcroft. He said new systems under development would soon enable location to within 15m.

The EU is now considering issuing a similar directive. A working party report released last month said: ‘Many mobile callers in an emergency are not able to indicate their location.’ The report suggests that provided privacy and data protection issues can be resolved, the EU is likely to favour a US-style mandate.

Barbara Gruell of location technology specialist SignalSoft claimed some operators were waiting unnecessarily: ‘You don’t need to wait for 3G to use this technology, as some operators believe. You can do it with 2G or 2.5G. The EU mandate could come into force by the middle of 2003, which means there isn’t much time left for the operators.’

Pressure from business is also growing, with firms planning location-based mobile services on existing 2G networks facing delays. Manganese Bronze, the UK engineering company that makes the most popular model of London taxi, is planning a service called Zingo that will match vacant cabs with passengers via their mobile phone.

The company this week said the launch of Zingo was being held up by the mobile networks. Ian Pickering, the firm’s chief executive, said the project could not progress until mobile phone companies begin providing third parties with location data from their networks.

Pickering described the delay as ‘disappointing’ but added, ‘I think it’s just the nature of technology companies.’