Now that wireless companies can track a mobile phone's location, customers will want to control exactly who knows where they are and when.
Bell Labs says it has developed a network software engine that can let cell users be as picky as they choose about disclosing their whereabouts, a step that may help wireless companies introduce "location-based services" in a way customers will find handy rather than intrusive.
In a presentation this week at an industry conference, researchers for the Bell Labs division of Lucent Technologies Inc. plan to describe how their technology copes with the conflicting demands of speed, privacy and personalization on a live telephone network -- enabling users to specify what location information is shared, when, with whom, how and under what circumstances.
While one U.S. mobile phone operator, AT&T Wireless, already offers a "Find Friends" feature that's somewhat analogous to a buddy list in instant messaging, location-based services have mostly remained an unfulfilled promise.
More recently, under a federal mandate requiring that cell carriers be able to pinpoint the whereabouts of any customer who calls 911 during an emergency, expensive network upgrades have made wireless companies more anxious to deploy services which can exploit these new capabilities for a profit.
Examples of such services would typically include the ability for restaurants and other businesses to send a solicitation by text message to a cell phone when its owner wanders within range of those merchants. Other applications might include the ability to locate co-workers and customers.
While many cell phone users might like to be notified of a nearby eatery or find it helpful to let others keep track of their movements, most would rather not expose themselves to round-the-clock, everywhere-they-go surveillance.
However, given the real-time requirements of transmitting information over a telephone network, it can be difficult to program a wide-range of options for individuals to personalize preferences such as when, where and with whom to share location information. One solution is to hard-code a network database with an "on-off" switch that activates or deactivates a service, for instance, during a window of time with set hours such as peak and off-peak.
Bell Labs said it used a "rules-driven" approach to programming that can take personalization to a less-rigid level without bogging down the computing power of a network.
While not all users will want or need an elaborate level of personalization, wireless companies would prefer the flexibility to service a variety of customers on the same network.
"You may have a power user who's very concerned about being able to show his or her location to different types of customers and family," said Rick Hull, director of Network Data and Services Research at Bell Labs.
"There may be notions about important customers and less important customers, breaking deals," he said. "Maybe for his wife he wants to give very accurate information about his location, but for someone else only wants to give his location within 15 miles. Maybe he doesn't want one customer to know that he's visiting another customer's site."
Bell Labs said it is negotiating with wireless operators to conduct trials with the technology, which it hopes will be ready for commercial deployment next year. The research is being presented at the 2004 IEEE International Conference on Mobile Data Management in Berkeley, Calif.