Thursday, April 13, 2006

Sprint Nextel Makes GPS Cell Phones Electronic Nannies

Sprint is launching a new cellular service today called "Family Locator Service" that lets you track the whereabouts of your kids at all times. You pay $9.99 a month to enable your "parent" cell phone so you can track up to 4 rambunctious tykes as they go from school to soccer practice, stopping by the candy store and heading home. You ping the kid's phone and see their current location on a map displayed on your cell phone screen. You can also get the maps on your Internet connected PC.

The Family Locator Service is another clever way to get more out of all that hidden cell phone technology. As you may or may not know, any cell phone you buy now has a GPS navigation receiver built-in. Amazing, but true. The Nav systems you get for your car are bulky monsters and need a little magnetic antenna on the roof with a wire run through the window. Handheld GPS receivers for hiking have been getting smaller, but some are still more than a handful. Yet soldered on the circuit board in your cell phone is all the circuitry and antenna needed to pick up multiple global positioning satellites and tell the phone system exactly where you are.

The impetus for this technology has been E911, also known as enhanced 911 service. When you call 911 from your home phone, authorities know exactly where you are even if you can't speak. Axe murderer in the house? No problem. You don't have to make a peep. Just dial 911 and leave the phone off the hook. The cops will get there. They know where to come because every traditional phone line has a unique pair of wires that connect it to the local phone office.

Cell phones have been trickier simply because there are no wires and, consequently, no permanent connection. When you make a call, you are basically renting the next available radio channel until you hang up. As you move, you get assigned a new channel from the tower that is picking up your signal the strongest. Until the advent of GPS phones, the best the system could do is say that you were closest to this tower or that one. Now they know your location to a matter of a few feet.

Why invest in this amazing location ability and then let it lie dormant for emergency calls only? That's what the cell phone companies have been thinking. LBS or Location Based Services are a huge potential new market for technology that has already been bought and paid for. Nextel has been a leader in making the GPS capabilities of its phones visible to the user. Early features let you get your longitude and latitude wherever you happened to be. Next, maps were included. Now, phones like the Motorola i710 or the ruggedized Motorola i560 come with TeleNav software that gives you driving directions as well as maps as an add-on service.

The Sprint Nextel Family Locator works on 17 models of phones for parents and 30 models of phones for children.

Another competing idea is the cell phone designed specifically for kids, like the Verizon Migo or Cingular Firefly. These phones don't have the parental locating feature, but do have one-button calling for mom, dad, or the authorities.

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