Newly launched location-based wireless services caused a stir in Europe and Asia last year, and now a Boston company is bringing the same capability to wireless local area networks in the United States.
Newbury Networks has rolled out a new product that allows wireless local area networks (LANs) to track the location of their users. MIT is testing it, and the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston is already using it to guide people through its modern art collection.
"With this system, we have been able to solve an immediate problem in an interesting way," said John Murtha, vice president and general manager of the Royal Sonesta Hotel. And, he said, future applications will make the investment worthwhile. Newbury Networks' LocaleServer is a Java-based application server. It costs $20,000 with the wireless LAN sold separately.
Murtha intends to use the technology to track his workers so managers can know who is closest to a given room. Employees will also be able to access information relevant to their locations. For example, a banquet worker might be able to access the set-up arrangement for a banquet hall on his personal digital assistant (PDA) simply by walking into the room, Murtha said.
John Fairfield, senior systems manager at the Royal Sonesta, said the system will also allow the hotel to offer its customers wireless access for laptops and PDAs. A user's location can play a big part in how the access is offered. For example, the hotel may want to charge someone more for accessing the Internet from a meeting room, as opposed to accessing it from a lounge. Or access may be free to those looking at the art exhibit, but once they leave the lobby, they will have to pay, he said.
MIT is also putting in a location-aware wireless LAN to create a guided tour of its Sloan School of Management. As visitors walk through buildings and across quads, they will be able to access information relevant to that location. As the system rolls out, Alfred Essa, chief information officer at the MIT Sloan School, said that there will be many more applications.
For example, some faculty members may want to turn off Internet access for students when they enter a classroom. Others may want to provide selective access to class-related information. Faculty may be able to access certain records in faculty-only areas.
But what really interests Essa is the technology's potential.
"The ultimate goal is to let the MIT community come up with applications that don't exist yet," he said.
Right now, the market for this technology is small, said Michael Disabato, an analyst with the Burton Group, a research firm in Midvale, Utah. But in certain business sectors, such as museums, health care institutions and universities, there may be a demand for it in the future.
Disabato said location-aware wireless LANs are likely to be adopted as an emergency system aid. Companies that are using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) with a wireless network will have a hard time locating employees in the event of an emergency. But with this system, if someone calls 911, the system will be able to locate them with great accuracy, he said.
Jason Smolek, a network analyst with International Data Corp., a research firm in Framingham, Mass, said that the product can help create an added layer of security for wireless LANs. Many companies are concerned about network intrusion because wireless LANs often spill over into the parking lot, building lobbies and other public areas. This system could block any wireless access from a building's parking lot, or restrict access from the lobby.
But for employees, location-aware wireless LANs may be just a little too aware. The systems work by tracking a user's location. Requiring workers to carry them raises privacy issues.
MIT's Essa said that he is not yet sure how the privacy questions will unfold in the university environment.
"This will definitely open up some policy questions," he said.
Murtha said he is less concerned because privacy boundaries change in a work setting.
"At some level, I believe I have some authority to know where the people are who work for me when they are on their shift," he said. Knowing where his employees are is one of the reasons that Murtha sees value in this product.
But for many businesses, locating individuals and tracking them may be less of a concern Disabato said.
"The one person who will know will be the one person who really won't care, and that is the network manager. He's just too busy doing other things."