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Google And Massachusetts Transportation Department Provide GPS Signals In Tunnels

Smartphone users love their phones. That includes Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation services for driving directions. However, those driving directions don't work in tunnels where phones can't get GPS signals. That is changing.

Google and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) have entered a partnership to provide GPS navigation services for drivers inside tunnels. If you've familiar with Boston, then you know that portions of both Interstate 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike include tunnels. The ABC affiliate in Boston, WCVB reported last month that the partnership, part of the Connected Citizens Program, will:

"... install beacons inside Boston's tunnels to help GPS connection stay strong underground. Around 850 beacons are being installed, free of charge, as a part of an ongoing partnership between the state and the traffic app... Installation is scheduled to be complete by the end of July... The beacons are not limited to improving their own app's signal. As long as you are using Bluetooth, they are able to help improve any traffic app's connection."

For those unfamiliar with the technology, beacons are low-powered transmitters which, in this particular application, are installed in the tunnels' walls and provide geographic location information usable by drivers' (or passengers') smartphones passing by (assuming the phones' Bluetooth features are enabled).

Bluetooth beacons are used in a variety of applications and locations. The Privacy SOS blog explained:

"... They’re useful in places where precise location information is necessary but difficult to acquire via satellite. For that reason, they’ve been field tested in museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and airports like London Gatwick. At Gatwick, beacons deliver turn-by-turn directions to users’ phones to help them navigate the airport terminals..."

Within large airports such as Gatwick, the technology can present more precise geolocation data of nearby dining and shopping venues to travelers. According to Bluetooth SIG, Inc., the community of 30,000 companies that use the technology:

"The proliferation and near universal availability of Bluetooth® technology is opening up new markets at all ends of the spectrum. Beacons or iBeacons—small objects transmitting location information to smartphones and powered by Bluetooth with low energy—make the promise of a mobile wallet, mobile couponing, and location-based services possible... The retail space is the first to envision a future for beacons using for everything from in-store analytics to proximity marketing, indoor navigation and contactless payments. Think about a customer who is looking at a new TV and he/she gets a text with a 25 percent off coupon for that same TV and then pays automatically using an online account..."

iBeacons are the version for Apple branded mobile devices. All 12 major automobile makers offer hands-free phone calling systems using the technology. And, social network giant Facebook has developed its own proprietary Bluetooth module for an undisclosed upcoming consumer electronics device.

So, the technology provides new marketing and revenue opportunities to advertisers. TechCrunch explained:

"The Beacons program isn’t looking to get help from individual-driver Wazers in this case, but is looking for cities and tunnel owners who might be fans of the service to step up and apply to its program. The program is powered by Eddystone, a Bluetooth Low Energy beacon profile created by Google that works with cheap, battery-powered BLE Waze Beacon hardware to be installed in participating tunnels. These beacons would be configured to transmit signals to Bluetooth-enabled smartphones... There is a cost to participate — each beacon is $28.50, Waze notes, and a typical installation requires around 42 beacons per mile of tunnel. But for municipalities and tunnel operators, this would actually be a service they can provide drivers, which might actually eliminate frustration and traffic..."

There are several key takeaways here:

  1. GPS navigation services can perform better in previously unavailable areas,
  2. Companies can collect (and share) more precise geolocation data about consumers and our movements,
  3. Consumers' GPS data can now be collected in previously unattainable locations,
  4. What matters aren't the transmissions by beacons, but rather the GPS and related data collected by your phone and the apps you use, which are transmitted back to the apps' developers, and then shared by developers with their business partners (e.g., mobile service providers, smartphone operating system developers, advertisers, and affiliates
  5. You don't have to be a Google user for Google to collect GPS data about you, and
  6. Consumers can expect a coming proliferation of Bluetooth modules in a variety of locations, retail stores, and devices.

So, now you know more about how Google and other companies collect GPS data about you. After analyzing the geolocation data collected, they know not only when and where you go, but also your patterns in the physical world: where you go on certain days and times, how long you stay, where and what you've done before (and after), who you associate with, and more.

Don't like the more precise tracking? Then, don't use the Waze app or Google Maps, delete the blabbermouth apps, or turn off the Bluetooth feature on your phone.

A noted economist once said, "There is no free lunch." And that applies to GPS navigation in tunnels. The price for "free," convenient navigation services means mobile users allow companies to collect and analyze mountains of data about their movements in the physical world.

What are your opinions of GPS navigation services in tunnels? If the city or town where you live has tunnels, have beacons been installed?

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