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WiFi-assisted GPS system

Skyhook Wireless has released software which uses WiFi to turn notebooks and wireless handheld computers into global positioning systems (GPS). The Loki software, now in beta, is based on WiFi detection and location software used to match 802.11 wireless signals transmitted from a user's PC with hotspots. Loki can map locations, pinpoint a particular event within a city or find a gas station with the lowest per-gallon costs. Users can also email their locations to friends and associates trying to find them. The software also provides a menu bar and selections that let users "geo-tag" a location or get a WiFi view of the nearest movie theater or restaurant. This feature is useful to bloggers and creators of targeted content Web sites who normally have to use XML scripting to tag their whereabouts.

Skyhook is onto something. There are more than 82,000 documented WiFi hotspots worldwide, with about 40 percent of them located in the U.S., according to In-Stat. The number of consumer and business wireless APs, however, is in the tens of millions. Last year alone, for example, more than 140 million WiFi chip sets were shipped and roughly 30 percent were used in wireless gateways and routers, In-Stat noted. Skyhook mapped the location of these wireless routers in 100 cities by enlisting people across the country who engaged in "war-driving on steroids," CEO and founder Ted Morgan explained.

These people used WiFi-signal sniffing devices to collect the unique MAC address fingerprint from wireless APs, and the data were then associated with the location information provided through GPS satellite systems. The system also incorporates IP location technology developed by MaxMind to validate a location and geographic data in the absence of multiple WiFi signals. The result, the company claims, is location-based information which is accurate within 20 meters. The technology relies on a number of overlapping WiFi signals rather than signals transmitted by satellites or cell towers. Unlike GPS, the WiFi-based location technology also works within buildings and with more accuracy within tightly congested city areas since there is usually no shortage of WiFi transmitters in these places.

Skyhook says their plan is not to compete with GPS technology, but rather enhance the location-based experiences with a more granular solution. That having been said, the company does have long-term plans to offer the technology and applications to wireless service providers and others. "More people are using the Internet and searching for information and things to buy, and they want to know where these places are," said Morgan.

For more on Skyhook location-based solution:
- see Tim Scannell's report
- visit Skyhook's Web site
For more on the Skyhook-MaxMind partnership:
- see MaxMind's press release

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