Dynamic Cell-ID: Clever way to Block Google, but will it Backfire?
Location was once a unique asset for the mobile operators. You wanted to locate someone? only the mobile operator could find him/her. A valuable asset indeed, but as we now know most operators missed their opportunity to monetize it. Location is now being commoditzed and is available freely on many high end handsets, especially those that support GPS or WIFI. However Google also offers location based on the operators own base stations, and it does this in an aggregated way, across operators and countries. This service is available on any handset that supports Cell ID APIs (most smart phones and many Java devices). To be fair, operators still have the advantage of offering location across all devices, however. In addition, operator APIs are network based and don’t require that software be installed on devices which is an advantage for some applications.
How did Google build this database of operator base stations?
In case you have not already heard, it’s a simple crowd sourcing method: many handsets have both GPS and access to Cell ID. Each time one of these devices reports its GPS coordinates to Google (using Google applications like Maps) it also reports its Cell ID even if it is not required for that particular application. With so many devices reporting their location around all the base stations, Google can use a clustering algorithm to pinpoint the location of each base station and build a very accurate database. When devices that don’t have GPS (or are indoors) require a location fix, they simply report their Cell ID and Google can easily locate them with a database look up. As new base stations are added (tons are added all the time), Google quickly discovers them using the same method. Very clever indeed.
Can operators block Google from “stealing” their location information? Enter Dynamic Cell-ID
Dynamic Cell-ID is a way of dynamically assigning the Cell-ID that is reported to wireless devices by base stations. Rather than always reporting the same Cell ID, base stations report a different, dynamically generated Cell-ID. Only the operator can map the dynamic Cell-ID to the fixed Cell-ID that is required to infer location. Very clever too. You can find a patent application for dynamic Cell ID here and note the mention of shielding “illegal” service effectively. I know of at least one major European operator considering implementing this approach.
Should operators block Google? would this backfire?
As tempting as this dynamic Cell-ID approach sounds, blocking Google is not be in the best interest of operators. Imagine if Google Maps did not work for operator A customers, but it worked well for customers of operators B, C, and D? Would operator A be better off? Probably not. Customers could vote with their feet and switch to another operator. Although Google would have the option to pay the operator for access to its location API, this does not seem likely.
Water under the bridge
Rather than trying to regain control of location, operators should learn from this experience and move fast to monetize other assets before they too become commoditized. Examples of these include payments and subscriber profile. See also my post “Will Operators miss the Boat with Payments Too?”
What do you think about Dynamic Cell-ID? Should operators block Google in an effort to monetize location?