8 Crowdsourcing apps (besides OpenSignal) we love

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you already have the OpenSignal app running on your smartphone. If so, you’re part of a community millions-strong sharing information about their mobile network’s connections. All of that information goes into databases that anyone can access on OpenSignal’s website to find the best performing networks in their area.

It’s the perfect example of crowdsourcing technology – collecting bits of information that on their own aren’t that useful, but when combined with millions of other data points paint a much more meaningful picture. OpenSignal isn’t the only app that makes use of crowdsourcing techniques, though. Here are some favorites of my own as well as those of the OpenSignal team.

  • Waze: Now owned by Google, Waze is still the king of crowdsourced traffic apps. You use it like any other navigation app, but the traffic data you see on screen is sourced in real-time from other nearby Waze drivers reporting on their traffic speeds, road congestion and even obstacles on the road.
  • Moovit: The Waze of transit, Moovit collects real-time information on trains, buses, trams or any other form of public transportation. You can use Moovit to find the closest metro station, track how close your bus is to your local stop and receive alerts warning you of system congestions and even line closures.
  • FlightRadar24: While Moovit looks to ground transportation, FlightRadar24 scans the skies. FlightRadar’s community of global volunteers collect transponder data transmitted directly by aircraft overhead, creating a database that can track the location of most of the world’s flights in real time.
  • FireChat: Developed by Open Garden, FireChat isn’t crowdsourcing information so much as it’s crowdsourcing connections. FireChat-loaded phones automatically link up through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections creating hyperlocal chat networks. Very useful if you’re at a music festival and want to tap into the local buzz or are a political dissident trying to communicate with your peers at a protest rally.
  • Food52 Hotline: One of my personal favorites, Hotline is a mobile and web app developed by recipe site Food52 to provide immediate answers to cooking questions. Type your question (for instance “To what internal temperature should I cook a whole duck?”) into the interface, and it will be sent off to Food52’s community of cooks. It’s not unusual to get a response within minutes.
  • OpenStreetMap: The granddaddy of open-source, crowd collaboration projects, OpenStreetMap is still going strong after 11 years, and hundreds of thousands of amateur cartographers have contributed map points to its database. You can use OSM on its own, but chances are you’ve encountered its maps in other apps and websites such as Foursquare and Craigslist.
  • Mapillary: Google’s Street View may be a handy way to pick out landmarks on a map, but its drive-by photography isn’t exactly pretty. Crowdsourced street photo app Mapillary wants to change that, asking its users to map the streets, parks and points of interest in their cities through compelling photos.
  • WeatherSignal: We couldn’t really do a blog post about crowdsourcing without mentioning OpenSignal’s own climate-mapping app WeatherSignal. By measuring temperature changes in the phone’s battery, WeatherSignal can infer local temperature even on the most basic smartphones, but more sophisticated phones with larger sensor arrays can measure barometric pressure, humidity and even magnetic fields.

Have a favorite crowdsourcing app of your own? Be sure and tell us about it in the comments section!

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

Posted in Crowdsourcing, Sensors, WeatherSignal | Leave a comment

Wi-Fi Names: Summer Loving

In honour of the fact that I got drunk in a park and told my girlfriend that I loved her when I actually meant to say ‘pass the pimms’, this edition of our favourite Wi-Fi names will be dedicated to the fickle summer goddess of Love. There is also a reasonable chance that the heat causes my fingers to stick to the keys resulting in a line of random letters but either way you’ll read it and you’ll enjoy it. Understood? As ever, these are real Wi-Fi hotspots spotted by the OpenSignal app over the past few months.

1) LOVE IS OBEDIENCE

Oh god, what a place to start. Who let Christian Grey have Wi-Fi admin privileges? Why would anyone want this as their Wi-Fi name? Here’s the thing about obedience, doesn’t it kind of remove the equivalence that should probably be present in all NON-ABUSIVE loving relationships? Hey, Wi-Fi owner, newsflash – you know when the Episcopal church removed ‘to obey’ from their wedding vows? Yep, that’s right – 1922. NINETEEN TWENTY-TWO.

How far we’ve come.

2) I love my cats meow meow

There are only two ways to read this. 1) What kind of Wi-Fi enabled freak cats is this person breeding? 2) We have a feline-on-human hostage situation underway (I am reliably informed that this is referred to by the FBI as a ‘code mew’). If you were a cat and wanted your hostage-human to tell their fellow non-hostage humans that everything is fine, wouldn’t you hold a claw to the jugular and say “type after me: I love my cats meow meow”? I would. Send help.

3) tell my WiFi love her

HEY. THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY GOO… I’m sorry, I temporarily thought I was in 2011 and reading a Buzzfeed list of Wi-Fi names that are also puns on the word Wi-Fi. Seriously though, get over it, no one finds these funny anymore.

4) EricaLovesMike

Actually no, I’m tired of this. It’s really bloody hot in this armchair and guess what people I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIPS. Stop broadcasting them over Wi-Fi, literally no one cares about your happiness or your instagram posts of Sunday morning brunch tagged with heart-shaped Emojis. I’LL CARVE HEARTS INTO YOUR GODDAMN EYES. Monogamous relationships are a historical accident – smash the system.

I don’t know where that came from, sorry guys, apparently I’m dealing with some things right now.

5) Ilovepotatose

You know what you should love? Spellcheck. Potatoes shouldn’t rhyme with comatose. Show some bloody respect if you claim to love potatoes so much. I am now torn between making loads of jokes about our Irish CEO or bad puns based on chips, mash etc.

Instead I’m going to settle for neither.

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The (slight) rise of _nomap

In 2010, Google streetview cars were found to be collecting data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries worldwide. The German privacy regulator described the issue as ‘one of the biggest known data protection violations in history’, and the scandal became worldwide news – the latest in a long line of new privacy concerns raised by developments in technology.

Google initially claimed that they were merely collecting SSIDs and Mac addresses (harmless Wi-Fi names and identifiers) – but further examination revealed that they were in fact also collecting Wi-Fi payload data (information sent over the network) from unsecured hotspots. The idea that Google was ‘listening in’ on Wi-Fi hotspot owners naturally caused a big stir and yet again served to emphasise the importance of securing domestic hotspots.

So what did Google do about this? After apologising, bringing in security consulting firm Stroz Friedberg to conduct a review, and being investigated by regulatory authorities in several countries (with the subsequent levying of fines) – they introduced ‘_nomap’. By appending ‘_nomap’ to the end of your Wi-Fi hotspots you could opt out of all Wi-Fi network tracking and means your hotspot will not be used for improving location fixes on mobile devices. Google announced ‘_nomap’ in October 2011 to surprisingly little press attention – so how widespread actually was the take-up of this solution to privacy invasion?

At OpenSignal our app records the location of mobile hotspots along with their SSIDs, meaning that we have a database of several hundred million Wi-Fi names worldwide and so are able to see the actual real-world response to Google’s solution. In total, since the publication of Google’s blog post , we have seen 23,547 distinct Wi-Fi hotspots since October 2011 (up until September 2014) with ‘_nomap’ appended. To visualize this we looked at the proportion of Wi-Fi networks seen by our app each month that have ‘_nomap’ attached, which clearly shows the response immediately after Google published their blog post – despite the fact that coverage was limited.

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 17.39.11

The proportion of observed global Wi-Fi hotspots that have had ‘_nomap’ appended

This graph also shows a rise beginning at the end of 2013 and continuing into 2014. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s privacy incursions occurred during the summer of 2013 – and so it is possible that the heightened awareness about privacy issues could have led to more people taking care that Google was not recording their Wi-Fi hotspot. However, compared to the number of global Wi-Fi networks detected by OpenSignal, it is clear that the number that adopted Google’s solution is very small.

So why is this? Obviously it was deeply concerning that Google were tracking payload data – but it is not in itself concerning that they are collecting Wi-Fi SSIDs (after all, this is what we at OpenSignal do). Those technologically savvy enough to have followed the story (and continued to do so months after the initial outburst of outrage) will know that Google had publicly pledged to stop tracking Wi-Fi payload data, and so any appending _nomap to their Wi-Fi hotspots would not make any difference to that. Furthermore there is nothing private about a Wi-Fi name, it is a handle that is broadcast publicly and can be seen by anyone in range with a device capable of detecting the network. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that individuals use their Wi-Fi network name (their SSID) as a way of broadcasting a message (often with a specific neighbour in mind) and we have collected many of these in our occasional blogs on Wi-Fi names that amuse us. Our research into the use of Wi-Fi names to declare political allegiance in Buenos Aires also supports this hypothesis.

Posted in Mobile Trends | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

MVNOs: Taking your mobile service virtual

If you walk into a wireless store, you’re not going to be at a loss for choice of mobile operators – far more choice than would seem possible. Whether you’re in the U.S., U.K., or Spain, there are going to be dozens of different options for your mobile phone service, even though in each of those countries there are only a handful of operators that actually run cellular networks.

How can you have more operators than networks? The answer is that most of the operators are virtual. They don’t actually own any network infrastructure. Instead they buy time on the major operators’ networks. So if you signed up for Lycamobile’s popular service to escape the tyranny of O2 in the U.K., I’ve got news for you: you’re still using O2’s minutes, text messages and data. You’re just sending your monthly checks to a middleman.

The reason why these so-called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, or MVNOs, are so prolific, is they often offer value or services that their bigger network-owning counterparts can’t or won’t offer. Let’s take a look at the ways an MVNO can differ from a major operator.

  • Many MVNOs are cheap compared to their big players, and that’s because they have relatively low overhead. They don’t do much marketing and advertising. Their customer acquisition costs are low and they certainly don’t have to maintain a capital expense budget since they have no networks to speak of. Many of them don’t even keep phone inventory, simply selling SIM cards, and those who do sell devices, often buy inexpensive Androids or refurbished phones. An MVNO’s biggest expense is paying their monthly capacity bill to their network providers, but since they’re buying their voice and data at wholesale rates, they can pass those savings onto their customers.
  • Everyone wants to be in the mobile business, whether you’re Virgin, Google or Tesco, and the MVNO route is an easy way to become an operator without burying enormous expense into buying spectrum and building a network. These vanity MVNOs also tend to be inexpensive, targeting budget minded consumers that an operator might not focus on in their main service plans.
  • You can’t make a one-size-fits-all service plan nor create a brand that encompasses all interests. One of the reasons why the major operators support MVNOs is to go after customer segments they normally wouldn’t be exposed to. For instance Virgin Mobile targets a younger demographic. Many other MVNOs like Lycamobile in Europe or Telcel America in the U.S. focus on expatriates or consumers who have a lot of friends and families overseas by offering cheap international plans.
  • New Business Models. Some of the newest MVNOs aren’t just competing on price; they’re trying to shake up the mobile industry by packaging traditional mobile service in new ways. For instance, FreedomPop in the U.S. offers a bare-bones voice and data plan every month at no charge. Google is using its MVNO Project Fi to explore metered data pricing – in the U.S. you pay $1 for every 100 MBs consumed – and a Wi-Fi first business model, which moves the majority of data traffic onto cheaper unlicensed networks. Truphone is trying to create an international data plan that allows you to cross borders without paying roaming fees.

There’s a lot to like about MVNOs, but there are some drawbacks to them as well. To keep prices low, MVNOs have to keep their costs down, which means they often skimp on customer service. Also many mobile operators put restrictions on their virtual partners. In some cases, MVNOs don’t get access to the fastest 4G networks or they’re prohibited from selling the newest devices.

And just because your MVNO is alive and kicking today doesn’t mean it will be around tomorrow. The mobile industry is littered with failed MVNOs. Some are shut down by their parent companies (Disney Mobile and ESPN Mobile), others get bought out by bigger carriers (Boost Mobile) while still others are startups that run out of money (Amp’d Mobile).

There’s definitely a lot of innovation going on in the world of virtual operators, but not all innovative ideas find a market.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

Posted in Mobile Trends, Understanding signal | 1 Comment

What smartphone batteries know about São Paulo’s weather

A couple of years ago, our ginger CTO (yes, that’s how he likes to introduce himself!) was having a look at battery temperature data collected by OpenSignal users when he was struck by an unexpected discovery…insert suspense music here. What James realised was that air temperature could be retrieved from smartphones’ battery temperature by means of a simple mathematical transformation. The idea was further developed in collaboration with a team of researchers including Aart Overeem from Wageningen University and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), and Berthold Horn from MIT. Their findings can be read in the Geophysical Research Letters.

Two years on, Jan Jaap Pape, one of Aart’s students, has picked up the torch and produced an awesome bachelor’s thesis, where he put the heat transformation model to the test. For this he studied battery temperature readings from OpenSignal users in São Paulo and Buenos Aires. Although his research hasn’t yet been published, Jan Jaap has kindly allowed us to share with our readers his promising results. So here they are, in a nutshell:

  • For a city with the climatic characteristics of São Paulo or Buenos Aires, it takes around 250 battery temperature readings to get an accurate estimate of daily-averaged temperatures.
  • The model was also tried for the retrieval of hourly-averaged temperatures. Although these estimates are not as reliable as the daily ones, Jan Jaap notes that a “signal” or correspondence with the weather station data “is nonetheless present”.
  • A first attempt was made to detect spatial variability for daily-averaged temperatures, which would allow to address phenomena such as the urban heat island effect (UHI). It was observed that as the city of São Paulo was further divided in smaller parts, the more the correlation between daily-averaged temperatures from batteries and weather station data decreased. However, more weather station data would be needed to reach reliable conclusions.
  • Jan Jaap tried as well new ways of calibrating and validating the smartphone data. In fact, for daily-averaged temperature estimates in São Paulo, better results were obtained when calibration was done using data for the entire year of 2013 and validation using data for the whole of 2014 (as opposed to taking the odd days for calibration and the even ones for validation).
  • Last but not least, Jan Jaap was able to determine that estimating air temperatures using one specific type of smartphone model can be significantly more accurate compared to using data from all smartphone models. The graph below shows that the smartphone temperature curve is closely correlated to that of weather station datas when a unique series of smartphones is used (in this particular case, the Samsung GTI-series).
São Paulo temperature curves in 2014 based on the Samsung GTI-series

São Paulo temperature curves in 2014

As the team working to bring OpenSignal to your smartphone or tablet, we glow with pride when we read a paper or thesis like Jan Jaap’s. But really, it’s you as our user who should give yourself a hearty pat on the back. Thanks to you, our crowdsourced database on wireless networks grows every day: your contribution has helped improve OpenSignal and made possible WeatherSignal, CrisisSignal and WiFiMapper; and it is thanks to you that we can collaborate with researchers such as Aart, Berthold and Jan Jaap. So here here to you!

Posted in Academic, Crowdsourcing, Sensors, WeatherSignal | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Privacy Implications of Mobile Sensor Networks

Back in February I gave a speech at Four Years From Now (FYFN) in Barcelona on the subject of privacy and mobile sensor networks. The full text of this speech is now available here on the OpenSignal website. Mobile sensor networks are an incredibly powerful tool to gather data about the world (as James Robinson and I have previously discussed) but their development raises important questions about privacy and the ways we interact in a world where internet access is both always-on and necessary for full social engagement.

OpenSignal is a sensor network company, and it is our responsibility to balance the opportunity of this new technology with privacy concerns, as we feel very strongly about our users’ right to privacy. Many of the concerns I raise in the speech are hypothetical, but on a more practical level there are three things we already do to help our users to participate in our sensor networks (OpenSignal, WeatherSignal, WifiMapper) while remaining informed about what is going on with our data.

1) Transparency

The traditional model for a data company is to offer a service (often free) to users and then take personal data and profit off it as a transaction cost of the user receiving utility from the service. We believe in both making explicit the data we collect and also feeding it directly into the service that we provide to users (signal data into coverage maps, pressure data available on weathersignal.com etc). This allows users to directly benefit from the information they share. rather than simply giving it up as a cost, we want data sharing to be a benefit to our users. We believe we have done this very effectively.

2) Accountability

Users may be on board with our projects and be happy with sharing their data with us, but what happens to that data once it has been directly shared with us? While we do not collect any personally identifiable information (unless users explicitly log-in with facebook or send us an e-mail, neither of which are necessary actions for app usage), we still believe this question has relevance, especially for any company that collects location-tagged data (as we do – as we need to know where you can get good/bad signal or where your pressure reading is from – in order to provide our services). While the initial context in which data is given up may be fine to you (such as using our app), our sharing that data with third parties opens up avenues that are potentially difficult to navigate. For now we provide non-user identified data to mobile operators, consultancies and academic researchers. We believe our openness at point-of-use helps us here, as our business model is very open and obvious and the mobile network data we provide to operators helps them to improve their service to users – something which is the key driver of the OpenSignal mission.

3) Trust

We strive to be a company that has the full trust of our users, through our openness and clarity about our purpose. One of the things about collecting this kind of data is that you never know exactly what kind of use it might be put to (for instance, collecting battery temperature data as we do in OpenSignal led to our creating an algorithm to map ambient temperature from aggregated battery temperature readings – which directly led to the creation of WeatherSignal). We want to be a company that can be trusted to make the right decision with our users’ data, and we believe that all of our decisions up to this point have been made with user privacy at the forefront of our minds. I see no reason for that to change in either the near or far future.

Read the full report on privacy and the future of mobile sensor networks

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Free Wi-Fi Guide: London

To celebrate the launch of our new app WifiMapper we are releasing a series of posts on the WiFi hotpots in various global cities that we are most confident are free. WifiMapper is an app to help you find free Wi-Fi, with hundreds of millions of Wi-Fi hotspots in our database which we sort algorithmically in order to recommend hotspots that are both free and reliable. From our London database, then, the following ten were at the top of our list:

1) Balans Café, Old Compton Street
Password protected? Yes
Seen by 24 WifiMapper users

Balans is a small chain, with their first restaurant here in Soho. A recent comment on Foursquare recommends that you ‘get a royalty card’. We suspect they mean loyalty card (though the mere mile’s walk from Buckingham Palace might suggest otherwise) but either away turning up wearing a crown might prove rewarding. A potentially more useful note describes Balans as trendy with a good vibe and an excellent menu. All that and Free Wi-Fi, what more could you ask for?

2) Café Fiori, Charing Cross Road
Password protected? No.
Seen by 261 WifiMapper users

Fiori Corner is right next to Leicester square tube station, and so is mainly home to those waiting for their (late) friend to get off the Picadilly line or who have come to see the tourists in their iheartlondon t-shirts. It also houses those who have run out of mobile data and need to whatsapp their friends at 1am to say ‘meet me in the casino’ (side note – this has never happened to me).

3) National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
Password protected? No.
Seen by 134 WifiMapper users

It’s the National Gallery, it has paintings and a café. It also has Wi-Fi so you can look up the exact definition of ‘Chiaroscuro’, refresh your memory about the difference between pointillism and impressionism or Google the plot of the Da Vinci code so you can remember why the Renaissance was so important anyway.

It's the National Gallery

It’s the National Gallery

4) The Roebuck, Chiswick High Street
Password protected? Yes
Seen by 35 WifiMapper users

The Roebuck is a Chiswick pub that serves food, drink and, tastiest of all, free Wi-Fi. Old Foursquare comments advise trying the hot chocolate, which seems like a pretty poor recommendation for a pub but who am I to judge?

5) French House Bar, Soho
Password protected? Yes
Seen by 19 WifiMapper users

The French house is a fantastic pub in Soho that magically appears to be both always packed and always have one small table available upstairs in the corner. The Google Maps description calls it a ‘Francophile pub with a Bohemian crowd’. I’ve actually never tried its Wi-Fi network, but if the pub’s drinks are any indication it’ll probably be pretty reliable.

6) Camden Eye, 2 Kentish Town Rd, Camden Town
Password protected? Yes
Seen by 87 WifiMapper users

Pizza. Camden. Presumably a lot of skinny-jean wearing teenage hipsters. According to Foursquare it’s a ‘nice pub for a weekend afternoon to watch people go by’.

Don't go to France, stay here and drink instead.

Don’t go to France, stay here and drink instead.

7) TheContinentalBar_FREE_WIFI, King’s Cross
Password protected? No
Seen by 136 WifiMapper users

Ah, the vast expanse of Continental Europe. Separated from our proud little island nation by a thin sleeve of water. Don’t go there. Never go there. Drink in the bar and miss your train (or do what I did once and accidentally get on the train to Paris when you meant to go to Brussels).

 8) BFI IMAX FreeWiFi
Password protected? No
Seen by 46 WifiMapper users

(put on your 3D glasses now)

This text is big and it’s in 3D BE WOWED

Something something WiFi.

(take off 3D glasses).

9) BananaTree
Password protected? Yes
Seen by 13 WifiMapper users

You’ll go bananas for it HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA

Banana_in_hand

HA HA HA HA HA

10) Bar Kick

Password protected? No
Seen by WifiMapper users

The name Bar Kick suggests a lot of possibilities. A Wi-Fi enabled Taekwando dojo? Fight club with better advertising? A bar where you have to do 56 kick-ups just to get a pint? Finding out that it’s a foosball bar is almost disappointing.

Photo Credit (in order) all from WikiMedia Commons:  Poco a Poco, Mark Ahsmann and ProjectManhattan

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App Update! WifiMapper iOS 1.0.3 released

A new version of WifiMapper on iOS is out! We’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes – it may not be immediately obvious, but the app is now smoother and slicker. We’ve really listened to you, our users – we’ve taken your forum comments, reviews, and emails and put each one in our development plan. Thank you as well to all of our testers, who have helped us ensure that the app didn’t break every time we moved a pixel.6zk5rgP9_400x400

So what’s in it? Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. With apps, on the other hand, you get to know EXACTLY what you’re going to get. Here we go:

1) Better filtering of Wifi hotspots – we’re showing better hotspots and better groupings of multiple routers. We’ve also incorporated your data, so if you’ve contributed hotspot classifications, take a look – they should be there.  Further refreshes are planned to occur once a week.

2) Buttons! So while you shouldn’t be pushing other people’s buttons, there are more parts of the app for you to explore. We’ve tried to make things clearer and easier to navigate.

3) Dynamic information – Whether the performance is good or bad, it’s a cafe or park, now you’ll get more clarity on how we assign these labels and where the information comes from.

4) Map and Search – In an unfamiliar place? Looking for something specific? We’ve optimised the search to handle these cases better.

Enjoy, and let us know what you think, either below or in the WifiMapper forums. Also, the next app update will be a big one (version 1.1!) and will include email login (we heard you when you requested login options other than Facebook), a redesign of the profile page, and other features. Help us steer the ship by joining the WifiMapper iOS beta program. If you’re on Android, you can join the active public beta through the WifiMapper Google+ community. The official release of WifiMapper Android will be in a few weeks – hang on in there!

Posted in Beta-Testing, iOS Beta-Testing, WifiMapper | Leave a comment

The connected car: A primer

If you’ve shopped a new a car in the last few years, chances are you’ve been presented with a lot more options beyond leather seats and fancy speakers. Cars are getting connected, giving drivers the ability to bring apps and internet services once confined to smartphones and PCs into their dashboards.

Given the amount of time we spend behind the wheel, linking our cars to the cloud and the apps we use for information and entertainment makes a lot of sense. But keep in mind that the automotive industry is much more conservative and plodding than the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley. Features and services will come much more slowly to the dashboard than they will to your iPad.

The automakers do have reason to be cautious. We’re often engaging with our infotainment systems at highway speeds. An app that proves to be too cumbersome to use or too distracting (don’t expect to see YouTube on your heads-up display any time soon) could prove fatal. Still, in many new cars you can now turn on Pandora or many other streaming audio services with a touch of the screen or even a voice command. That’s nothing to scoff at.

If you’re thinking of making a connected car purchase, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Car connectivity can mean one of two things. Either your automaker has embedded a 3G or 4G radio into the vehicle or it provides the means for you to connect the dash to the internet through your smartphone. Embedded connectivity can often mean a better signal and faster connection through the car’s externally mounted antenna, it can come with some added telematics features (for instance, letting you see your fuel level from a remote app) and it can turn your vehicle into a Wi-Fi hotspot. But it also requires getting a separate – and often expensive – mobile subscription for your car. With bring-your-own-connectivity you’re basically using the same connection and mobile plan attached to your smartphone.
  • The number of apps available in cars are still tiny in number. If you thought the smartphone market was fragmented, well every automaker has a different operating system and app requirements, making it a nightmare for developers. While a few companies like Pandora (which aims to become the new FM radio of our cars) will go through the effort of optimizing their apps for 20 different infotainment platforms, most will not. Also, the automakers may block certain types of apps for competitive reasons. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to use Google Maps, Waze or Here for turn-by-turn directions in your car? Well, that’s not wonderful for automakers trying to protect the profits from their embedded navigation systems.
  • The connected car you get when your drive off the lot is probably the one you’ll be stuck with for a long time. We trade in our smartphones for newer models every year or two, but typically we own our cars a lot longer. While automakers will be able to offer some enhancements through software upgrades, the hardware in your car is going to become outdated before you know it.

If you’re a heavy user of Google or Apple services and want to use them in your vehicle, then it might be worthwhile putting off your new car purchase a bit longer. This year, the first cars supporting Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto will hit the market. Don’t expect either platform to recreate the iOS or Android experience on your dashboard. They’re not true infotainment operating systems. Instead, they project a scaled-down and car-optimized version of the phone’s user interface into the dashboard display, letting you use Google and Apple’s mapping, media and communication services without fiddling with your handset.

I don’t think any reasonable person would make a car purchase today solely for the type of apps it supports, but I suspect it will become an increasingly important consideration as car connectivity gets more sophisticated. After all, we spend a lot of time in traffic in our daily commutes. That’s a lot of time in which we want we to be both informed and entertained.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Kevin Fitchard who is a journalist covering the mobile industry and wireless technology. He most recently wrote for Gigaom.

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No Signal?! How about a new cell tower…

Continuing with the theme of solutions for no signal (started by the post No Signal?! Top things to try), I’d like to explore a much more permanent option for improving signal, albeit one that takes much longer and has a much smaller likelihood of ‘actually happening’. This option is the construction of a new cell tower.

Okay, that’s obviously not something YOU can do on a whim. But what if you live in an area with poor signal, and you’d be happy with a new tower on your property? How do you start? Who do you talk to? In this blog post, I am going to explain the processes and considerations of different players when building cell towers, using examples of specific companies from the United States. However, you should be able to extend this to your country by looking for the same types of companies and organisations.

1) The First Steps
The first thing you should do if you are willing to lease your property for a cell tower is register your intent, either with a tower infrastructure company (such as Crown Castle or American Tower), or with the network providers themselves. Some network providers will have their own infrastructure branches, as you can see with T-mobile’s Real Estate arm.

What does registration entail? Options for Registering Intent for a Cell TowerIt’s pretty straightforward – basically address, GPS coordinates, and type of property. If we take a look at the registration form of Crown Castle, we can see that there are several default property types (namely, tall constructions as well as land parcels). This makes sense, given that there are several types of tower deployments – standalone towers, rooftop installations, small cell deployments, and collocations (placing of new antennas on an existing tower).

2) The Decision Process and Limitations 
Now that you’ve registered your intent, it is up to the tower company to decide whether to consider your land for a new cell tower location. Tower infrastructure companies look for new tower locations based on the requirements of network providers, and as American Tower states, they will “contact you directly if there is serious interest in utilizing your land to develop a tower site.” So what are the chances? What do they look for in a tower site? While the full list depends highly on the context, here are a few common themes:

  • Your property is inside the ‘Search Ring’ – the area defined by the carrier as needing a cell tower.
  • Topography and position of your property (elevation, easy/difficult construction area, access to cell site)
  • Size of property in relation to tower requirements – different kinds of towers have different free area requirements.
  • Types of Transmission TowersZoning – Zoning determines restrictions on constructions above a certain height, but also, specific communities can have “individual” regulations on cell tower construction due to visual aesthetics and health concerns. At the same time, cell towers – a ‘public utility’ – might be so important that zoning regulations can be overruled. There’s a very interesting summary on “Municipal Zoning of Cell Towers and Antennas” by the Office of the General Counsel in New York.

While your property might fit these specifications exactly, there are other considerations that may affect your chances of getting a tower built on your land. As posted by the FCC (US telecoms regulator), the tower location must be compliant with:

  • The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – the tower site must not adversely affect:
    • threatened or endangered species
    • designated critical habitats
    • migratory birds
  • The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) – the tower site must not adversely affect historic properties or tribal lands

3) Offer Made, Lease Negotiations
Assuming your property passes the above requirements and fits the tower company’s specifications, you may receive a lease offer. Whether and how much you negotiate is again dependant on context – are there other good options for the tower company to construct the tower? You could consult a tower lease consultancy – Steel in the Air and Airwave Advisors are two examples- to help you with the negotiations. An interesting important detail to remember is future co-location rents: if a tower can support more antennas than are initially installed, you could get an increase in your lease when other networks install their antennas on the same cell tower. For you to receive collocation rents, the appropriate terms need to be part of your lease agreement.

That’s the basic process of getting a tower company or network to build a new tower, or collocate an antenna, on your property. Do you have a tower on your property? Did you have an experience similar to the one described here? Please share below or in the OpenSignal forums!

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