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20 March 2015

W-Locate pushes for SIM standards, telcos finally start to listen

Sometimes an idea or service comes along that seems either too good to be true, or too straightforward to have not been done yet. This was the case for RIoT, as we tried to finally clear our MWC backlog with a phone call to W-Locate – a company that uses a 5kB Java applet in a SIM card to provide location-based services. We had to ask why such a sensible idea hadn’t been done before.

The appeal of the SIM card is that it is a platform-agnostic medium. As long as the device can use SMS messaging and has an antenna, W-Locate’s XimLoc application can send accurate positional information to a cloud platform using the cell towers of a participating telco – regardless of whether the end-device is running iOS, Android, Windows, or a RTOS or embedded runtime environment.

CEO Stevie Ooi explained that W-Locate had been trying to get people to listen to the idea for a long time, and that the company finally got a break with the local Singaporean telcos, and support from Safran Morpho. XimLoc is based on the GSMA’s OneAPI initiative, which should let the app operate on any cellular network.

The service is already being used in Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system, which automates tolling for road access via cloud servers and an in-car device rather than a series of physical booths. XimLoc is also behind StarHub’s Workforce Management system, GyLet and ThyssenKrupp elevator maintenance systems, and Jason Parquet Holdings’ belt sander asset tracking program.

Recent wins include a child-safety implementation with Edusafety in China in November, and Thailand’s AIS Mobile Track and Trace business platform – which was launched at MWC. The largest Thai MNO will use XimLoc-ready SIMs from Morpho to provide workforce and fleet management – and the ability to track and locate and device with a SIM card.

XimLoc benefits from being able to use multiple cell towers for positioning, with a maximum limit of 16, which can provide much more accurate pinpointing that GPS – especially in dense urban environments where users will travel vertically as well as laterally.

As this is essentially a device-side positioning technology, unlike network-based positioning such as IP Access’s presenceCell (which uses small cells to locate nearby devices), there will be tension between businesses that want to operate out of the SIM card in applets (such as W-Locate) and the carriers who wish to retain control of the SIM.

Those with good memories will recall SoNear’s SIM-based technology, which offered location tracking back in 2002. It didn’t really take off because of a lack of any additional functionality that an MNO couldn’t pull from their back office systems, but now that the ecosystems have matured, XimLoc is poised to see much better adoption due to real-world applications and use cases.

The GSMA is currently working towards field-programmable SIMS, that might eventually evolve into elements in a chipset rather than the removable cards that are most familiar today. With an identity management system that can be updated without carrier intervention, there could be some pushback from the telcos over control of the SIM in the future.

Retaining control of the SIM, and therefore the billing of the device, is of paramount importance to a telco, and we could see carriers try to restrict any technologies that would encourage adopters to swap SIMs – as that transaction represents an opportunity for existing customers to jump ship with their shiny new SIM cards.

However, Ooi said that the end-goal for W-Locate was to see its technology adopted into cellular standards, adding that the company had a very productive MWC, with visits from the GSMA and the SIMalliance. Ooi is optimistic about the standardization process, which is usually a very slow and laborious process. He believes that the XimLoc app could become standard in a couple of years, and said that the company had been swamped with enquiries about the technology – after struggling for two years to get the telcos to listen to a startup.

It’s not hard to understand why. This approach has huge potential in the IoT, as well as in value-add services for telcos. SIM cards are absolutely pervasive in developed economies, and are growing quickly in emerging economies too. If you want to track an individual or a wider group of people, a SIM card approach such as XimLoc is the easiest way to go – as all that is needed is a new SIM card.

One of the best implementations that cropped up in our conversation with Ooi was disaster relief and emergency responses, where the emergency services or local government workers could assess and locate people in need of assistance – allowing them to efficiently allocate resources to the areas in which they are needed most. W-Locate is currently providing the Urbanizer software that manages this process, and can provide visual heat maps of density, but the data can be ported to other applications easily enough, with the telco’s assistance.

Other mass implementations would be used by governments and cities to track the movements of users within a city. While this sounds Orwellian, users can effectively opt-out of this by not using a device that uses a SIM card. Given the importance of mobile phones to the majority of consumers, that might be an excessive trade off to be expected – but if a citizen is concerned about being tracked, they should have stopped using cellular phones a decade ago, and should take to avoiding the legions of CCTV cameras that have been installed too.

Tracking people in a city has much more practical applications that pervasive surveillance, but admittedly, in the post-Snowden world, trust in the government can be a little hard to come by. But with information from cellphones, a city could accurately track footfall, to inform urban planning and design.

This would mean that both pedestrian and vehicular traffic could be mapped, so that roads, paths and public transport could all be allocated to where they are most needed. Similarly, public services such as police patrols and waste management teams can be pointed to high-traffic areas, to cope with the messes that society creates.

The required tracking functions can already be supplied by GPS, which is particularly common in smartphones. In that instance, Ooi said that XimLoc would act as a backup medium for a phone, but that it could be the primary phone of positioning on devices that lacked GPS.

A GPS module adds cost and size to a device, which is a severe issue for IoT implementations where the BOM needs to be as low as possible. Support for all SIM form factors, included embedded SIMs, means that the size of the device can be reduced, as the developer doesn’t need to try and fit a GPS module inside the blueprint.

For applications such as asset tracking modules for logistics chains, where the number of devices is counted in hundreds of thousands to millions per business, a 1% difference in the BOM can massively influence an IoT adoption decision – never mind the double-digit percentage increase that a GPS module would add, at the very least.