Googlemaps must be one of the most popular apps for smartphones these days. It’s particularly useful when finding your way on foot around a new city or part of town. It’s also popular at home and in the office to lookup places to visit. But despite being an outstanding app, there remain some real issues when using it both for location accuracy and data capacity.
Googlemaps on the move
I’m sure many of us have used Google’s excellent and free tool to view areas we plan to visit, whether on business or pleasure. It’s transformed the way that some professionals work, giving them the ability to give an opinion on planning rules for building work without the need to visit the property. Internet access from any PC makes this tool has made some business operations very much more efficient.
When on the move, the Googlemap smartphone applications also provide a quick and easy method of looking up where you are, where you are heading for and even searching for nearby facilities.
But location accuracy is critical. For example, in London, where data coverage is generally pretty good, poor GPS accuracy placed me in the wrong street and sent me on a very roundabout route to my destination. This was probably due to the high buildings and narrow streets restricting the view of the GPS satellites.
Location accuracy is essential for residential use too
You would think that when at a known fixed location, such as your home, then location accuracy would be high. However this can be a problem when using your own Wi-Fi router. Examples I've heard of include how one smartphone got confused when connected to a domestic Wi-Fi router that had been moved to a new address 200 miles away.
Possibly this is linked to how Google capture location data. They have been logging the location and ID of private Wi-Fi hotpots when it’s cars drive through taking pictures for streetview (full details here). It has stopped this practice after receiving a large fine in France for breach of privacy. This information can be used to help determine your location – but if you move your Wi-Fi router, it might confuse the application. The comments answering that post suggest this is exactly what had happened when someone took their router and plugged it in at another house hundreds of miles away.
Verizon Wireless Extender users report a problem too
There have also been reports (from 2009) of an issue with incorrect location for Googlemaps when using Verizon’s Wireless Extender (the brand name for their femtocell which was 2G only at that time). With the unit switched off, Googlemaps worked well and reports the correct/accurate location. When turned on, the smartphone thinks it’s somewhere else altogether – probably at the ISP’s network control centre or local telephone exchange.
Although Verizon’s Network Extender requires an active GPS signal to confirm its location, this isn’t shared with applications running on the smartphone. So although I would be confident that the E911 accuracy would be correct if you made an emergency call, and that the femtocell would correctly transmit at the correct frequency for the location it’s in, this doesn’t seem to be passed on to user applications.
And this happens on Sprint’s network too
Another example (from August 2011) comes from a Sprint customer who had a similar problem with his Airave femtocell when using Google Latitude. When connected to the Airave, his location is reported as some 100 miles away (probably at Sprint’s switching centre) rather than at his home.
And also in the UK on Vodafone Suresignal
The same problem (albeit with some technical explanation from the support team) is discussed on Vodafone’s SureSignal forum too.
Why blame the networks?
A customer buying a femtocell and starting to use it may naturally blame the new device for any changes in service or problems that arise. However I think it’s unfair to point the finger at the network operator for what is a problem associated with the Google application.
As the comments on this post say, the E911 service works correctly and when the internal GPS on the phone kicks in the correct location also works within Googlemaps.
But as discussed in many of the answers within these posts, the location database that Google is using to determine your location is nothing to do with the network operator. Google simply hasn’t got a record of your new femtocell and where you have installed it. Perhaps they should create a simple way of letting you tell them (or your phone finding this out for itself), but I don’t see that this should involve the network operator in any way.
What happens when there are even more femtocells?
As the number of femtocells (and mobile phone cellsites in general) continues to grow dramatically, we are likely to be using this kind of location based application more and more in the home and on the move. Accurate location information is essential to make these services appealing rather than annoying. While Google may no longer capture information about private Wi-Fi routers, I don’t see why it can’t continue to map the track the location of publicly accessible cellsites including femtocells – after all, it can’t tell who is using them or what is being said/sent simply by sniffing the radio traffic – and even find some way of getting its users to provide that information.
The large projected number of metro-femtocells, picocells and other small cells should help to increase the accuracy of position fixing. In the case I gave earlier where the GPS signal is lost in the canyon streets of London, the larger number of cells can compensate for that.
As a by-product, they can also provide a much faster and higher capacity data connection to my smartphone – allowing it to evolve to give even more information about my surroundings.