Erik Davis on Feed:
January 22, 2001 1:40 PM   Subscribe

Erik Davis on Feed: "I feel compelled to mention the strangely underreported fact that, thanks to the FCC, all U.S. cell phones will soon be required to pack GPS units (or some equivalent tech) that will allow their location to be fixed the moment that 911 is dialed... the FCC has also ruled that wireless carriers, and not users, own GPS location data, and can freely sell it to third parties... your radio-cum-PDA-cum-cell phone... may want to tell you about the great deal on Beanie Babies or Canon’s 15 x 45 image-stabilized binoculars that awaits you two shops down to the right."
posted by Tubes (19 comments total)
With GPS phones (ie, the ones that the rest of the world uses) it's already easy for "the authorities" to pin-point your location, through simple triangulation of the distance between your phone and the nearest cells.
posted by holgate at 1:56 PM on January 22, 2001

Think you mean GSM, not GPS.
posted by kindall at 2:06 PM on January 22, 2001

Yep: I stand corrected, kindall. All these TLAs make my head swim...
posted by holgate at 2:20 PM on January 22, 2001

In New Zealand, the phone company advertises the fact that the phone knows where it is as a benefit not a threat. Personally, I can't wait to be able to click a button and be told where I am, how to get somewhere else, and where the nearest ATM or gas station is. I think that's terrific.

My old nokia sprint PCS phone, when put into debug mode, would tell me the LAT/LON of the nearest tower. There are towers every few miles. The phone company *must* know where you are so that you can recieve service. You are on their network. Of course this data belongs to them. It's *their network*.

My recommendation to people worried about their location's privacy: Don't carry a cell phone.
posted by benbrown at 2:27 PM on January 22, 2001

I don't find the fact that mandatory GPS-enabled (and as a result push advertising) is coming to cell phones underreported at all. But maybe I read different publications than the general populace. Actually, I almost certainly read different publications than the general populace, but I've seen mention of such phones in tech media as generic and "mainstream" as Yahoo! magazine.

Also, in newspapers and all over the place in various tech media. Is this really new or in any way unexpected to people? Eyeballs is eyeballs.
posted by cCranium at 2:31 PM on January 22, 2001

Triangulation is possible within limits with any of the standards except CDMA, but it's not as accurate as you'd like. One problem is that what triangulation measures is not the position of the phone, but rather the length of the RF path to the phone. Usually that's fairly direct, but it isn't always. Sometimes you can be talking to a cell via an RF path which is bouncing off of something behind you, like the surface of a large building. Using that, the RF path is much longer than the actual distance from cell to phone. Moreover, triangulation requires at least 2 "fixes", and it's often the case that only one cell can pick up the phone's signal. In that case, all you have is the sector and a range, which describes a semicircle around the cell.

In CDMA the cell doesn't keep track of the absolute power being used by the phone, and instead of perhaps 4 discrete power levels, there are nearly a hundred (and the phone's power level in a call is adjusted 800 times per second to keep the received power at the cell constant). If it measures receive power from the phone, it will always get the same answer, no matter where the phone is. However, what it can measure instead is the phone's phase offset (take my word for it) accurate to a fraction of a chip (one sixteenth of a chip, about 50 nanoseconds or about 21 feet one-way) and from that get a quite accurate indication of the RF pathlength -- which isn't necessarily direct. And in CDMA it's even more likely that only one cell can pick up the phone. It's a tough problem.

Also, despite the headline on this thread, I was under the impression that decisions hadn't been made yet on permitting any other uses of the phone's position besides emergency response and law enforcement. Regardless, I doubt anyone is seriously considering spontaneously sending ads to phones. I think spontaneous advertising would cause a user revolt. More important, it would drain the phone battery and dramatically decrease standby time.

The next generation of CDMA cell phones based on Qualcomm chips (which is to say, every phone manufacturer except Motorola) will have GPS; it's been available in the silicon for quite a while, but there's a timelag from when the chips appear and when phones are released based on them.

As to what the cell system knows now, that depends on the phone protocol in use. I know CDMA best (I used to work at Qualcomm) and there, if you're not in a call the only think the cell knows is what sector you were in the last time your phone registered, and that you're somewhere in that zone (because if you cross zone boundaries your phone will register again). But a zone can be a hundred square miles. It can send a message to your phone forcing it to register again, and then it will know the sector you're in. But a sector is usually a 120 degree slice with a radius of about 3 miles, which is still quite a lot of area. Within that sector, it has very little knowledge of where you are. Still, if you're evading arrest in a car, that gives the cops a big hint as to where to search. (That's how they found OJ.)

The FCC is not requiring GPS in the phones. What the FCC is requiring is the ability to locate the phone within a certain small error (less than a hundred feet). GPS is one way to do that, but it's not the only one.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:07 PM on January 22, 2001

Triangulation is possible within limits with any of the standards except CDMA

Yup. Which is why you can have my QCP-1900 when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. :-)

Sure wish I knew the connector pinout, though; they never *did* make a 2.5mm adapter for it.
posted by baylink at 5:01 PM on January 22, 2001

OnStar pumps out a strong three-watt GPS signal which supposedly works even if your antenna gets ripped off

Doesn't *ANYBODY* fact check anything before the publish it anymore?

"Strong three-watt GPS signal" in-fucking-deed.
posted by baylink at 5:05 PM on January 22, 2001

We in the stalker community can't wait to get our hands on that data
posted by stalker at 5:18 PM on January 22, 2001

Having had to dial an ambulance from my cell phone in a part of London I didn't know, I've seen the benefits first hand. All I had to do was describe what I could see, the rest was done by triangulating my position and an ambulance was on the scene. If I'd had to find out where I was, it would have taken much longer.
As for sending ads to phones, which phone network would you use, Adcom or NoAdcom? Market forces will decide that one, I'm sure.
posted by Markb at 1:32 AM on January 23, 2001

What makes you think there will be a "NoAdcom"? Collusion of businesses behind the scenes will make sure that market forces never get a chance to decide that one, I'm sure.
posted by Potsy at 2:20 AM on January 23, 2001

If enough people are willing to pay for it, there will be a 'NoAdcom'.
If you want a cheaper service, go 'Adcom'.

If you want a free/cheap ISP, you have ads on your site, if you don't want ads, you pay for a more expensive ISP.

posted by Markb at 3:53 AM on January 23, 2001

With all the telecom mergers and consolidation going on, I'll bet that very soon there will be just a few big companies left for mobile phone users to choose from, and it will be all too easy for them to get together and agree to never let ad-free services see the light of day. If no such service is available, it won't matter how many people are willing to pay for it, you simply won't be able to get it, at any price.

Take the ISP example you mentioned. You DO have to put up with ads all the time, no matter how much you pay -- in the form of spam e-mail. ISPs make deals to allow spamming, even when they tell you they don't. I'm not going to hold my breath wait for the market to decide that spam is going to go away. I realize that I am stuck with it forever, no matter how many people are willing to pay to make it go away.

The customer is no longer part of these mystical "market forces" people like to go on and on about. If companies decide they want to do something, they will do it whether customers like it or not. They'll get together and set things up so that you don't have any choice. You won't be able to pay to get out of it. (Sure, you can choose to just stay home and never buy anything or go anywhere, but that's really no choice at all, in my opinion.)
posted by Potsy at 5:21 AM on January 23, 2001

Once upon a time a phone company gave people discounts on long distance to their relatives and aquantances who also used that phone company's service.

Another phone company came along and said "Hey, I'll give you cheap long distance to everyone whether they use our service or not!"

The first phone company quickly changed their pricing.

Market force is not dead, because competition still exists and thrives, even with all the conglomerating going on.

Also, if a phone company sells an ad-based service, for - and this is a random number - 3 cents/minute why not offer an ad-free service for 6 cents/minute?

It's called divergant revenue streams, and it provides the company with a number of different ways to market the same product. It's why we're seeing more and more "Pay-as-you-go" services by the same companies that offer N minutes per month or Z cents per minute plans. Consumers get what they want, companies get the money.

As everyone's so fond of pointing out, corporations are looking out for the bottom line. Why restrict people to "Our way or no way" when "no way" means the company isn't getting any money? A no-ad options would probably take, oh, 2 weeks of time from a technical standpoint, and maybe 3 months for the rest of the business aspect (assuming it isn't one of the initial options). Phone companies would be complete idiots not to go for it, and if there's one thing phone companies aren't, it's complete idiots.

They're big, rich, evil corporations for a reason. They've learned not to restrict consumer options.
posted by cCranium at 6:04 AM on January 23, 2001

If the ads are based on your position, the problem is that such a system would drain your battery in standby mode. The battery in most modern phones contains a rather small amount of energy. To make it last a long time, phone designers jump through hoops to squeeze every last milliwatt of power consumption they can out of the standby mode. (I know. I was involved in that.) Now if the system wants to monitor where you are, it would have to send a message to your phone periodically (every few minutes) telling the phone "Wake up, run your GPS to figure out your position, then transmit that back to the system." They'd have to poll like that pretty continuously for maybe 16 hours per day. The extra work the phone was doing would seriously drain the battery. I suspect average power use would quintuple, which means standby time would collapse to 20% of what it ought to be.

Customers very much value long standby time. Something with this radical an effect on it isn't commercially viable.

I think it more likely that it would be an "opt-in" thing: you use your phone's minibrowser and say "I'm hungry, what restaurants are around here?" and then the cell system would query for your position, consult a database, and send back all the nearby restaurants who paid to be listed. That means that the GPS would only run when you asked it to, rather than running all the time.

Folks, I think you're afraid of nothing. Spontaneous position-related advertising isn't going to happen.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 7:02 AM on January 23, 2001

No... but I'd be a *lot* happier if I knew that the GPS position wasn't pollable.

If it was *hard wired* in the phone only to power the GPS when I dialled 911, I'd like it a lot better.

You know they could do this.

You know they won't.

It's *not* a trivial matter. Really.
posted by baylink at 7:47 AM on January 23, 2001

It seems that the GPS position wouldn't have to be constantly polled to enable geographic ad targeting. It could locate & target you only upon placing or receiving a call. That's the only time you'll be paying attention to the phone anyway.

Unless they start proactively calling you. "Hello AdCom user. Perhaps you missed the Starbucks half a block back?"
posted by Tubes at 7:57 AM on January 23, 2001

"Hello AdCom user. Perhaps you missed the Starbucks half a block back?"

Why would they need to know where you are to know that you're half a block from a Starbucks?
posted by Markb at 9:52 AM on January 23, 2001

The GPS does not work in such a way that you can flip on a receiver, take a reading, and get an instant fix on your position. It can take up to a few minutes for the receiver to pick up enough satellite signals to accurately triangulate. Once it has your location, it can use a differential process to follow your movement, but the initial reading takes a while.

Accordingly, your phone is not going to be continuously aware of your location unless the designers choose to leave the GPS receiver on even when the phone is switched off. As has already pointed out, this would destroy standby time and it is thus quite unlikely that they would choose to do this.

Furthermore, in my experience GPS signals are easily blocked. On a few occasions I have had to change the way I held the unit because my hand was covering too much of its view. Even if for some reason they decided to leave the phone's GPS receiver on all the time, simply stuffing it into your pocket should prevent it from knowing where you were.

I don't think this is going to be a huge problem.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:31 PM on January 23, 2001

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