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New technology tracks wireless users

MIT and the Royal Sonesta Hotels are using new technology developed by a Boston company that tracks the location of people on a wireless local area network.

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.

How location-based wireless works

Wireless systems are always tracking a user's location based on which access point his device is using. But until recently, that information was not accurate enough to be useful in wireless local area networks (LANs).

In a building, a single wireless LAN node could cover many small rooms, or a single large room -- an area too large to be useful in building applications tailored to location, said Michael Disabato, an analyst with the Burton Group, Midvale, Utah.

But Newbury Networks' system boosts the level of accuracy dramatically. It can identify a user down to a three-meter margin of error. That level of accuracy opens the door for a slew of new applications.

To set up the system, a map of the area covered by the wireless LAN is created, and areas for the location service are identified. Such areas might include a group of paintings in a gallery, or a meeting room.

As users walk through the entire area using a wireless device, the system is able to identify the qualities of the radio frequency signal sent from the device at any given point in the room. It notes the strength of the signal, which is related to the user's distance from the 802.11b node, as well as the device's relationship to other nearby nodes. And that information is then associated with the zones in the room that the user wants to identify for different services.

Once this site map is created, a user can associate services with a given area. This can include content, such as information about artwork that can be sent to a user when he enters a particular area, or a change in network access, such as a link to a printer in that room.

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.

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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.

Market limited

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."

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