How Location-Based Services and Personal Emergency Response Systems Utilize Wifi, Cellular, and GPS

Keeping Track

Location technology is one of the most helpful and widely used features for today’s mobile-platform users. It is utilized in many different ways ranging from navigation to pinpointing lost phones and automobiles, and even location tracking so parents can keep their children safe. Despite some concerns over non-consensual metadata tracking, location technologies have proven to be an indispensable feature that modern consumers can’t seem to live without.

The Differences Between Wifi, Cellular, and GPS

The primary differences between Wifi, Cellular, and GPS services lies in the method in which they gather and leverage location data. GPS uses satellites in orbit to triangulate the user’s precise location.

Each technology has its own pros, cons, and practical uses. Let’s explore some of those differences and what they mean for mobile app development.

GPS

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a government-owned navigational system that can locate the user through radio wave frequencies. In order to get the most accurate results, users must have unobstructed connections with at least four different GPS satellites. Large objects such as buildings, mountains, trees, or even thick cloud cover can block the user’s connection to the satellites, significantly reducing accuracy. 

Generally speaking, GPS is effective and accurate enough for the vast majority of tasks a user might be trying to perform. Locational accuracy ranges anywhere from 1 to 100 meters for most devices, with the average accuracy being somewhere around 13 feet (4 meters). GPS is great at locating the user anywhere on the planet, no matter how remote they might be. It’s ideal for people who might be going somewhere rugged and off the grid, as GPS will continue to function even without cellular signal or an internet connection. 

However, GPS is a fair-weather technology. Without a clear connection to the satellites, atmospheric interference makes locating users more difficult and significantly less accurate. This is why locating someone inside a building is so ineffective with GPS. Because of this lapse in efficacy, going forward fewer personal emergency response systems (PERS) are relying upon GPS to locate users.

Cellular & Wifi

Cellular locating technology is actually a catch-all term for a number of different location technologies, including both SIM and wifi-based methods. Where GPS technologies struggle, cellular technologies thrive. Cellular locating performs the best in densely populated areas where the majority of cell towers are located. Buildings and other obstructions won't affect the technology's ability to accurately track the user’s location. This type of location technology can determine the user’s precise location based on its distance from various connection points.

The cellular model has no problem accurately locating the user within buildings or other areas with obstructions that GPS would struggle with. Cellular technologies can locate the user within just a couple feet, resulting in significantly more effective action from emergency responders.

The downside of cellular location technologies is the lack of geographical coverage. For users who live in rural areas or people who travel to remote locations, cellular network coverage will be spotty and inconsistent at best. This is especially noticeable with LTE and 4G connections, although the spread of 5G may make this less of an issue in the future. Additionally, cellular location technologies typically require a subscription fee to access the network, while GPS has been completely free since its introduction in the 1980’s. While cellular location technologies aren’t generally expensive, the precise accuracy of urban coverage does come with a price tag.

Wifi tracking works a little differently than its cellular counterpart. Because most devices connect to only a singular wifi network at any given time, triangulation is not possible. Instead, wifi tracking utilizes IP addresses to locate users. Every network has its own physical IP address which informs the greater internet of its location. This allows information transmitted across the internet to move accurately and swiftly throughout its infrastructure. When a device connects to a wifi network, it pairs with its IP address, allowing location services to accurately identify the device's physical location.

A Compromise

Because GPS is free while cellular capabilities require a subscription, many PERS devices include both GPS and cellular features for optimal performance in any given scenario. This compromise is extremely efficient as each location technology offers its own unique strengths. PERS and mobile devices utilizing location technologies should provide both of these services to ensure rapid response times.

Location Technology Saves Lives

While mobile platforms and apps leverage location technologies for convenience (e.g. driving directions from Apple/Google Maps), they can also be used to save lives. PERS devices are specifically designed to provide emergency services for people living with high-risk conditions such as the elderly. Elderly people are the most common target market for PERS companies as they frequently live alone and are at a significantly higher risk of sustaining falls or other injuries. Each form of location technology is often leveraged in PERS devices, but they all provide different benefits to people in living in different circumstances.

PERS Devices and GPS Technology

Because elderly customers typically spend much of their time at home, GPS location technology struggles to identify which specific room and floor they are on. When it comes to emergency situations, every minute counts. That’s why users in rural areas tend to use devices that favor GPS over cellular location, as there isn’t a lot of signal interference.

PERS Devices and Cellular Technology

Since the majority of seniors live in suburban areas and spend most of their time indoors, cellular technology has become the primary technology leveraged in PERS and mobile devices. And with the looming rise of 5G, the improved density of network connections will only serve to further the functionality of cellular location technology. With properly configured networks, wifi and cellular location technology can precisely pinpoint the user’s location, making emergency services more efficient than ever.

Real Life Applications for Location Technology

Besides the previously mentioned location services for PERS devices, location and navigation technology has a wide range of possible uses.

  • Navigational Assistance: This location service is the most prevalent which most users are already familiar with. Primarily associated with GPS, navigational assistance can plan out driving or walking routes to a specific location. They can also dynamically reroute to avoid traffic jams and other hindrances to get you there as soon as possible.
  • Proximity Marketing: Through location-based services, businesses can push ad campaigns only to users located within the same geographical area. Leveraging mobile-based location data can greatly bolster local marketing initiatives by targeting local consumers who are the most likely to act.
  • Roadside Assistance: Roadside assistance companies such as AAA provide an app which allows them to precisely track the user’s location. If the user experiences a breakdown or any other issue with their vehicle, the service can pinpoint their location without the user having to give directions. This is especially useful if the user is in an unfamiliar location.
  • Mobile Workforce Management: For businesses that rely heavily upon logistics which employ multiple people working out in the field or at several different locations, a location-based service lets employees check in with their mobile devices upon reaching designated locations. Companies that manage more than a handful of remote workers frequently rely upon geographic data to make sure their employees are where they need to be.
  • Fraud Prevention: Location based services can also be invaluable for helping to mitigate fraudulent transactions and other security risks. These services create an additional layer of security for credit card transactions by matching the customer’s location at the time of purchase to the card transaction itself. This helps banks to create geographic profiles for their customers, making it easy to spot and flag transactions that occurred in unusual locations.

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