Real-Time Traffic ReportingTuesday, May 08, 2007
Well, we know turn-by-turn navigation is a hit on mobile phones, just take a look at Nextel (Sprint), Verizon Wireless and even AT&T's turn-by-turn directions and mapping and you will see that it is catching on. The biggest issue is how to enter your destination (the location you are starting from should be provided by your onboard GPS system or the network), but many systems now enable you to enter the destination on a computer and have it sent to the mobile phone.
About a year ago, I wrote an article for Wireless Week about navigation and turn-by-turn directions being included in handsets and said I thought the wireless industry could take over the navigation industry, but, so far, not much has happened in that regard. My reasons were that handset turn-by-turn products are every bit as good and as accurate as those built into my car, and the maps on my handset, along with the points of interest, tend to be more recently updated. I also talked about the use of Bluetooth and soon, wireless USB 2.0, which will provide a fast and capable connection between a wireless phone and, say, the dashboard screen in a car.
I still think navigation should be the purview of the wireless industry in phones and devices such as the Tom-Tom, Garmin and other dashboard devices. Updates can be sent via wireless and, at some point, turn-by-turn directions will be augmented by real-time traffic information.
Real-time traffic means different things to different people. To me, real-time traffic is key to the next generation of turn-by-turn directions as opposed to being able to go to the Internet, type in start and end points, a day of the week and a time period and have it report average times based on speed limits along the way.
Today, real-time traffic reporting is becoming one of the hottest areas in the search for the killer application for navigation. The goal is to direct you to your destination in the most efficient way. A number of companies already have such services on the market and more coming. Some have built large mathematical databases to predict traffic flow, others are monitoring probes on sections of Interstate highways that have been installed by some state departments of transportations (at the estimated cost of about $1million per mile), but that only covers portions of highways and not byways.
Other companies combine various methods of collecting traffic data including the use of AM/FM traffic reports, but we all know how useless they are. They never seem to cover the section of road you are on, when you are on it. One company takes information from cell phones―not live cell phones, from the billing engines installed in some networks. Several are using real-time data gathered from fleets of vehicles that travel extensively over many different routes and at least one is working on a plan to monitor all of the wireless phones on a given network, stripping off the ESN and phone number identifiers, locating the phones and reporting their direction and speed. I think you will see a press release or two about this system in the near future. Other methods are being deployed as well. (Disclaimer-We have a client that is deeply involved in this space.)
No matter how the data is collected, it is of more value to have some data than no data. There are advantages and drawbacks to each method of determining real-time traffic information, but the fact remains that adding traffic flow to navigation is something the wireless industry can do in near-real-time and that provides an advantage when it comes to these types of services.
Today, CDMA networks have a leg up on their GSM/UMTS competitors, but that won't last very long. CDMA uses GPS at every cell site for call hand-off and synchronization, and most wireless devices on CDMA networks have built-in GPS. You might think the E911 systems that have been installed would provide all network operators with the ability to locate customer devices in near-real time (one part of the navigation and traffic flow formula) but this is not the case. E911 is looking for a single "fix" on the phone, so it can report coordinates during the call for emergency services. Most of these systems were not designed to provide ongoing device tracking and, if they are used for this purpose, it eats up a lot of airtime.
In fact, if a network is using TDOA (Time Difference of Arrival) for its E911 fixes, it is almost impossible, I am told, for them to provide location tracking on a regular and ongoing basis, which is one reason many GSM networks are now deploying GPS receivers at their sites and in the phones (the new BlackBerry 8800 on AT&T has embedded GPS). This latest trend to provide phones with GPS in the GSM/UMTS world will help these operators eliminate the need for external GPS receivers connected to the phone via a cable or Bluetooth connection. Over time, most GSM/UMTS wireless devices will include a GPS chip and antenna system inside them, which is one reason companies that make GPS chipsets are looking pretty good at the moment.
Recently, I saw a demo of several programs using both turn-by-turn directions and real-time traffic that really excited me. The first was of a person planning his normal route for the day―going to the office from home and stopping at the bank on the way, and then to the dry cleaners on the way home, pick up one of his sons after baseball practice, stop at the store and pick up milk and, finally, home. With this particular device, it was simply a matter of dragging and dropping locations based on information already in his phone book. The device organized the stops based on the best, most efficient method of travel. When he actually left work, the order of the stops was changed based on reports of real-time traffic congestion.
Next was a demo of a group of friends who wanted to get together at a Starbucks for coffee. The demo showed the locations of each of the friends, spread out all over
Network operators want more data customers, there is no doubt about that, but what is in doubt is whether they are looking at applications that will truly drive increased data usage. In a world where mobility is the name of the game, you might expect them to invest a little time and effort, and even money, to work with companies that have ideas about how to increase usage. With flat-rate pricing for wireless data, perhaps they don't have much incentive to drive increased data usage for existing data customers, but they should be interested in adding voice-only customers to their voice-and-data rolls.
There were many months of continued growth for ringtones, ring-back tones and wallpaper, but demand for these services has peaked and is stagnant. One of the cited reasons is that there are too many applications out there, too many ringtones and other clutter, and no one can find what they want. So the search is on to find new ways to provide access to this information. Thus, search engines, driven by text input and voice, are all the rage now.
But what about applications that make use of navigation and real-time traffic? These applications will be used over and over again and will attract people who don't care about the latest ringtones but do care about arriving at their destinations in the shortest period of time. They will appeal to both business customers and consumers and will bring in additional revenue for network operators.
Yet it appears to me as though these applications are being viewed by most network operators as not relevant to their customer base. Recent surveys show that once a turn-by-turn navigation program is loaded on a phone, the take rate is high, at least 40%. How many other applications can claim that success rate? Adding traffic information, which seems to be a natural next step, could increase the take rate by 20% or more.
Microsoft has been demonstrating a series of applications that make use of both navigation and real-time traffic in the context of Microsoft Outlook. Enter an off-site meeting and the address and the back-end program figures out how much time it will take to get to the meeting. Then, in real time, the back-end system monitors the traffic on the route and if there is an accident, for example, you will receive an alert. More importantly to me, you will receive a new "must leave by time" as well as a re-route to your destination and, in some cases, if you want to view the problem on the route you can click on it and a real-time camera will provide a view of the situation.
These are only some examples of what is happening in the exciting field of location-based services (LBS). I see mixing navigation with real-time traffic reports as a big deal and another reason I believe the entire navigation and turn-by-turn market is up for grabs. Will the wireless industry be smart enough to take control of it, or end up simply being a pipe for the information to travel along? Stay tuned, as they say, the jury is still out.