GPS phones know locations

The technology is just the thing for those families who want to keep track of each other

Plugged In

September 07, 2006|By Terry Maxon | Terry Maxon,The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- When my son and I drove to North Carolina and back this summer, my wife didn't have to call to find out where I was. She looked me up on her computer.

She could tell when I was hustling at 70 mph down Interstate 20 in Mississippi, slowing to 5 mph in Atlanta or taking a detour to the BMW plant near Spartanburg, S.C.

She was able to track me because I was carrying two phones, one from Verizon Wireless and another from Sprint, that had global positioning satellite technology. The phones let parents - and for that matter, spouses - track where the devices are.

This year, GPS phones and family locator services are paying off for families who want to keep tabs on one another. They're being marketed as a way for parents to keep track of school-age children, but they can be used for much more than that:

A phone in the purse of an elderly mother can help her kids find her, even when she has forgotten where she is.

A text message can be sent automatically to let a parent know when the car pool delivers a child to day care, school or soccer practice. Another text message alerts the parent when the child arrives home.

A husband or wife can keep track of a spouse's whereabouts, whether it's on a cross-country jaunt, on a business trip or on the commute home.

"The technology was lacking" until recently for these applications, said Delly Tamer, founder and chief executive of online retailer LetsTalk.com.

"Now that the technology is here, the innovative uses that people are going to put in place to use these services are just going to be magnificent to watch."

Nextel started offering locator services for businesses several years ago. Its GPS services also are now being marketed to consumers. And families have a growing number of choices if they want to use GPS technology to keep track of children, parents or spouses.

In April, Sprint launched its family locator service. Two months later, Verizon Wireless and Disney Mobile began offering plans.

To get the service, users generally have to pay for family plans, which start at about $60 a month for two phones, plus a fee for the locator service. Most services allow a parent to locate a child's phone from the parent's phone or over the Internet. The Disney Mobile locator service is included in its family plans.

The plans from Sprint, Nextel, Disney and Verizon Wireless have safeguards - user names and passwords - to prevent strangers from tracking phone users. In most plans, the person being checked on is notified that someone has located them.

Disney Mobile and Sprint also have services for parents who want to control phone use.

Disney Mobile lets parents put a limit on the number of minutes each kid uses and the number of text messages sent. It also permits the grown-ups to specify times when children can and can't use the phone - phone calls from 5 to 8 p.m., or no phone calls during school or church, for example.

Through its Sanyo SCP-2400 phone, Sprint lets parents restrict whom the child can call or get calls from. They also can limit what children can buy from Sprint, such as music and video downloads.

Tamer, of LetsTalk.com, said he sees a lot of uses beyond the obvious.

"Even though they're marketed mostly for families and tracking children, I see applications where they're also used by families with people with Alzheimer's disease," he said.

"We can track them if they walk outdoors and they go somewhere and nobody knows where. There are more practical applications to these services than just tracking teens and tweens."

Of course, locator phones aren't foolproof.

While GPS technology can be precise in ideal conditions, cell phones often are taken into nonideal areas - deep inside buildings, with a lot of walls and roofs blocking the cell phone network and GPS signals, or to remote areas with marginal or no cellular signals. In those cases, a phone might be sited incorrectly or not at all.

Sometimes technology is no match for sneaky kids. A teenage daughter might say she's at the library, but it could be just her cell phone, set on "silent" and taped to the underside of a library table.

And phones with dead batteries are useless, no matter how much the adult children are paying to give an aging parent a cell phone with locator services. A forgetful person who gets lost might not remember to keep his telephone charged - and might not bring it along in the first place.

At LetsTalk, which sells cellular service plans and phones from a variety of carriers, there's a lot of interest in the family locator services if not a lot of sales, Tamer said. With the interest are many questions.

"People want to know if they work everywhere," he said. "The reality is they do not work everywhere. For both Verizon and Sprint, you have to be in their enhanced service areas."

In addition, people would like more specifics on costs, he said.

"Even though the service charge varies with all the carriers between $10 and $20, I see a lot of questions about: `What do I get for my money? How many times can I track my kids? Why do I have to get a menu? Why can't I get something one-price-fits-all?'" he said. "Sprint is almost one-price-fits-all, but there are a lot of questions about it."

And people want to know if their child can defeat the locator service. Simply put, "It does not work if the phone is off," he said.

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