GPS has been free from the start, but at the excellent Navigation & Location Europe conference in Amsterdam, the buzz was all about free access of Cell-ID location data.
Why is Cell-ID such a very sexy topic these days?
It’s mostly due to Google and GoogleMap mobile. Google has demonstrated – on a real and large scale – the viability of using Cell-ID as a positioning technology. Technically, there’s nothing really new. Google has simply proved that it’s possible to deliver mass market and widely adopted applications that demonstrate the power of Cell-ID positioning.
The other market fact is that GPS positioning is not yet available to everybody. Sure enough, we’ll see most mobile phones equipped with GPS in the coming twelve months or less, but there are still issues to iron out, like time to first fix, availability and power consumption. This could be partly solved by A-GPS, but view this as a new attempt for operators to control the market.
As Thomas Landspurg, founder of 8Motions, puts it: “With GPS, no need for operators! With A-GPS, you need them again.”
The operators will be keen to lock that A-GPS door, but they might not be able to lock the Cell-ID one. Indeed, if they control the server side type of Cell-ID, client side Cell-ID is outside their control.
Client side Cell-ID requires an application running on the device (Java, Symbian, etc.) that accesses the Cell-ID data and processes it. Then you need a database or a web service to lookup the Cell-ID with coordinates. Only a few handsets currently have these capabilities (most of the OpenOS phones and the latest SonyEricsson handsets).
Server side Cell-ID is more powerful because it works on all phones, and is run by the operators; it can be used with all technologies, including embedded or web-based app. But this requires a commercial relationship with the operator, and it’s expensive because it works on a charge-per-lookup basis. This is widely seen as a major factor that prevents the easy deployment of worldwide location-based applications.
Cell-ID as a technology has been available for a while now, so why it has not been widely used before?
Again, because operators have made sure it was hard to access. But now that devices have access to GPS and Cell-ID information at the same time, it’s possible for application providers (Google, but also 8Motions with OpenCell-ID) to create an alternative and useful Cell-ID database that could be used to provide client Cell-ID.
So will operators open the Cell-ID database? And for free?
It’s very hard to tell. Landspurg thinks that there will be more and more pressure for them to start opening it, but, as usual, it will be very controlled and probably partial. In Landspurg’s mind, the operators will provide an API to lookup a cell with a position for free, but they won’t provide server side Cell-ID positioning for free.
The other thing is that there is no "standard" API to do this, and this could generate a lot of fragmentation (some applications might work in some countries but not in others), but this is a minor problem compared with the total absence of a Cell-ID database.
So what about OpenCell-ID – how does it answer the lack of real Open Source Cell-ID?
The idea came from 8Motions’ (www.8motions.com) main application, which gathers information about Cell-ID samples and their position. Landspurg was unable to find a real open source database of Cell-ID to help start this, so 8Motions decided to start creating one using the client side model.
The issue is that there are as yet very few handsets able to provide data to the database, mainly due to the fact that their application is JavaME only, but Landspurg expects this to change a lot with the latest SonyEricsson phone with embedded GPS.
• A way to collect samples that will feed the Cell-ID database
• A way to lookup the ID of an already known cell with its position
• All data is downloadable and free, and even the source code of the application is open source
This mapping of the Cell-ID landscape is what everybody was talking about at the show. Rumour has it that Google and Nokia will soon provide Open Cell-ID APIs like OpenCellID.org does. While Google’s involvement is as yet unproven, Google themselves did not help to defuse it as they spoke of "providing an API to third party developers", but this API is yet to be published.
But suggesting that a growing army of devices start mapping locations worldwide and feeding this data into a open database … why should developers still care for server Cell-ID?
Because it will be a very long process to have accurate data worldwide for all cells, answers Landspurg.
The second reason is that operators can, in theory, change the Cell-ID numbering. But why would they want to do that?