Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series by CIMI Corp. president Tom Nolle, about the telecom networking challenges that are (or should be) keeping operators up at night. In part one, he looked at how to link services to the growing number of network resources and elements used to create them. In the second article in the series, below, Nolle examines the idea of increasing service provider revenue by offering context-aware services to users, looking at the value as well as the regulatory and compliance considerations.
Access to the Internet is probably the most revolutionary network service of all time. Oddly, this turns out to be a frustrating truth for network operators, because they feel locked into the "plumbing" role of the Internet; they provide the pipes. Above them, it seems to be the over-the-top content providers in the middle of the actual revolution.
The good news for operators is that there may be an opportunity to take some involvement back if they can offer users the right information at the right time. Context-aware information includes: 1) Information that is delivered effectively; 2) Information that reflects what the user has asked for; and 3) Information that reflects the context of the user's request.
GPS smartphones and tablets have made LBS into table stakes, which means contextual services have to go further today.
Network operators have found that using network connections to deliver content effectively isn't as profitable as they would like, even though they own the connections. The second attribute -- reflecting what the user wants -- is already served by a host of over-the-top players. But the third attribute -- that of correctly reflecting the context of the user's request -- is only now coming into play. It may be that accurate context-aware services could literally put operators back on top in future services.
Let's look at a possibility. One of the most common questions new voice-search users ask a smartphone or tablet is a variation on the question, "What is that?" The question reflects that human inquiries are often rooted deep in where users are located, what they are doing and what's going on around them.
Context-related questions are understood by the user, but they aren't typically understood by the applications serving up the information. But making the context known is a market ready to happen, and if service operators take that on, they could expand the value of their services. If you look at how different mobile search is than traditional search, the reason is usually context. Mobile users aren't researching; they're reacting to context.
Location-based services (LBS) are obviously a key part of contextual services. If someone asks, "What is that?" the presumption is that the subject of the query is probably near the user's location. Before the age of smartphones with built-in GPS, location-based services could have created enough differentiation for operators to win many OTT services. But GPS-enabled smartphones and tablets have made LBS into table stakes, which means contextual services have to go further.
One way to expand location-based services in a new direction is through "crowding" services. Every smart mobile device is essentially a sensor, shouting useful information for everyone to hear. If a lot of smartphones are suddenly found in a particular cell, there's a crowd there. The crowd might be associated with a public event, a traffic problem, time of day, etc. By integrating the knowledge of the crowd with a location-based event schedule, an app might tell users, "The sports arena is just letting out," which is potentially highly useful information.
But context awareness is more than the relationship between where a user is and where other things are. A user's destination is an element in context, so a useful contextual service might be to tell a user about the sports arena condition before being asked because it anticipates the user's normal route to a likely destination.
If service providers were to get into the context-aware services business, how should they go about it? If the user had set a GPS destination that would allow a contextual hint like existing conditions along a set route, for example, even without explicit destination data, knowledge of user behavior might spot a traditional route for a given time of day. Every piece of information like this can be used to refine what's delivered to a user.
Part 2: Service providers should refine location-based information with user context