LTE says, ‘Look, Ma, no new hardware’

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Someday indoor location could be as widely used as GPS maps. Taking steps toward that day, six vendors certified at least eight chips for a new Wi-Fi Location service while another company announced new software for similar services over 4G cellular.

Both new alternatives aim to provide a better approach than today’s Bluetooth and ultrawideband beacons. All sides hope to enable a market that’s expected to be big.

ABI Research estimates as many as 500 million Bluetooth beacons could ship by 2021 with retailers as their main market. It sizes the combined market for real-time location services and asset tracking at $15 billion in 2021.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), which debuted its approach Wednesday (Feb. 22), is even more bullish, citing a $35 billion mobile location-based services market by 2020. It hopes the application revenues for the Wi-Fi piece of it will hit $2.5 billion by that time.

Whatever the size or timeframe, engineers are driving forward. The WFA certified baseband silicon from Broadcom, Intel, Marvell, Mediatek, Qualcomm and Realtek for what it calls Wi-Fi Location. The approach measures signal timestamps to with nanosecond accuracy to deliver location data typically within a meter using the Fine Timing Measurement protocol from IEEE 802.11-2016.

Another Wi-Fi standard in the works, 802.11az, could offer centimeter accuracy in a few years. It aims to use information about the angles from which signals are received based on the emerging generation of systems using multiple antennas. However a draft standard suitable for building chips probably won’t be ready until sometime next year at the earliest.

Wi-Fi Location uses round-trip time stamps synchronized to the same clock. (Image: WFA)

The first-generation Wi-Fi Location techniques will probably not be available for use until next year. No access points or smartphones using updated chips are shipping yet and mobile operating systems need to create software to enable application developers to tap into the capabilities.

Long term the Wi-Fi approach should help make indoor location services more broadly and cheaply available, said Kevin Robinson, vice president of marketing for the WFA. Eventually all new access points and smartphones will be enabled for location and the approach provides more consistent accuracy over a larger range than Bluetooth and UWB alternatives which require dedicated beacons.

In addition, Wi-Fi supports delivery of an actual address and other data that can help emergency responders and other users. It protects the location data with the same techniques used for all Wi-Fi data today, he added.

The Wi-Fi services have their limitations. Best results come in situations where systems can use information from multiple access points. Accuracy may be lower at home or other places where only one AP is available. The sub-meter services planned for the next generation may depend in part on wideband techniques using 60 GHz Wi-Fi or other approaches engineers are still inventing.

Meanwhile, Bluetooth beacons are not standing still. Last year Google rolled out an initiative based on an open-source protocol.

PoLTE Corp. says it has a better approach than Wi-Fi although its accuracy is currently listed in a white paper co-authored by Intel as 2-6 meters. PoLTE will demo at Mobile World Congress its indoor “position over LTE” algorithms and software for location using GPS with existing LTE hardware and security.

The company claims it uses radar location techniques to turn reference signals embedded in an LTE transmission into precise location data. It says its patented algorithms can provide more than 10 times the resolution or location accuracy of legacy approaches.

“There is no longer a need for mobile network operators or enterprises to attempt to stitch together a quilt of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or GPS technologies,” said Russ Markhovsky, chief executive of PoLTE, in a press release.

However, consumer devices do need to embed the company’s firmware and service providers need to run a software-based location server, according to John Dow, PoLTE’s chief operating officer.

“We expect to have multiple field trials that include Tier 1 operators, leading LTE chip manufactures and global device makers of phones and IoT devices…with general availability targeted for 2018,” said Dow in an email exchange.

Dow said Wi-Fi lacks the building penetration of cellular which should give LTE higher accuracy rates, especially for buildings with their own small cell base stations. “In our trial, we deliver [accuracy within] three meters 95% of the time and [about] one meter accuracy 68% of the time in an office building that had LTE coverage from an in-building LTE network,” he said.

In tests with PoLTE and Intel the technique showed 2-6 meter accuracy. (Image: Intel, PoLTE)

The Wi-Fi/LTE clash over handling location services is one of many tussles between the two network technologies where temperatures are rising.

The use cases for indoor location are broad and raise familiar privacy issues. For instance, one engineer talked about enabling brick-and-mortar stores to use precise location data so they know as much about a shopper’s behavior as an online stories such as Amazon.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times Circle me on Google+


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