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GPS tracking more affordable for small business

Once a pricey tool for big-budget mobile fleets, global positioning system (GPS) technology is quickly becoming an affordable option for small businesses, such as Protec Dental Laboratories Ltd.

The company keeps eight drivers busy doing pickups and deliveries around greater Vancouver. In the past, a dispatcher constantly called drivers' cellphones to find out who was closest for rush pickups.

Now the dispatcher just looks at a computer screen, thanks to a tracking program and affordable new cellphones equipped with GPS that can identify each phone's location.

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This makes it much easier to dispatch the closest driver to a pickup, says Arnold Rennert, Protec's customer service manager. And the company can use data from the phones to see if drivers follow the most efficient routes for scheduled pickups and deliveries.

Originally developed for military use, sophisticated and often expensive GPS systems have been used to pinpoint commercial fleet vehicles, such as taxis and trucks for years. But thanks to the recent development of relatively cheap mobile gadgets, such as GPS-equipped cellphones, almost any business can now keep track of where its employees are - at very little cost.

Robert Blumenthal, vice-president of products and services at Telus Mobility (which recently introduced GPS for its Mike service), says cellphone manufacturers are adding GPS to handsets in response to demand for a way to pinpoint mobile 911 calls. This surge in production is bringing down the price of GPS technology.

Mr. Blumenthal says GPS-capable cellphones will become widespread in the coming months with "very little" added to a handset's cost or service fees. "Typically, it's a few dollars per month per user for the ability to have the entire [GPS]application."

The spread of consumer GPS cellphones is a big plus for business as well, according to Edward Rerisi, vice-president of research at Allied Business Intelligence Inc. in Oyster Bay, N.Y. It's giving small businesses an economical way to track employees and he expects affordable GPS to spawn a range of work-related applications.

Mr. Blumenthal agrees, pointing out that employers can use the handsets to track staff, such as bicycle couriers, just like their motorized counterparts.

And as an added benefit, employees who aren't always in vehicles can be located more precisely - and contacted - through the phones.

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Jim Huff, general manager of Telus Geomatics, which builds location-based services for clients, says some homecare organizations are considering GPS-equipped cellphones as a safety precaution.

That doesn't mean dedicated GPS systems are going away. In fact, as the technology becomes mainstream, it's making dedicated systems more affordable and attractive to smaller businesses, too.

Analyst Mr. Rerisi says special in-vehicle GPS devices - known in the trade as telematics - remain the biggest commercial use of GPS.

Toronto-based Grey Island Systems Inc., for example, develops dedicated GPS systems for customers who have to keep track of a number of vehicles. Its Interfleet system displays the movements of vehicles, such as snowplows and ambulances, on a secure website. Owen Moore, Grey Island's co-founder and chief financial officer, says Interfleet can produce detailed reports on vehicle movements, and fleet operators can even monitor such things as vehicle speed. The system costs from $5 to $25 a vehicle a month, depending on how often information is updated.

Digital Dispatch Systems Inc. of Vancouver focuses on taxis. Its system shows dispatchers where cabs are and can route a call automatically to the car best positioned to take it.

"Drivers do so much better [using GPS]because it's so much more efficient," says Andrew Morden, Digital Dispatch's chief financial officer.

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There are limitations to even the latest GPS gear, though. There has been talk of using it to track employees within office or manufacturing complexes, but GPS is not the best way to do this because the satellite signals don't penetrate buildings very well. Radio-frequency identification tags and other devices are better candidates for in-building tracking, experts say.

And not everyone likes the idea of employers having access to data from GPS devices or cellphones. When people can be tracked by technology, there are inevitably some privacy concerns.

Mr. Rennert says some of Protec's drivers initially were hesitant. "They thought that this was something where big brother is watching you," he says. But they warmed to the idea when they realized it saved them time, he adds.

"What you need to do for employees is to convince them that the location information allows them to do their job more efficiently," Mr. Rerisi says.

Digital Dispatch's Mr. Morden agrees, pointing out that in areas where knowing an employee's location is obviously useful, "most people understand that it's part of being dispatched effectively."

Being able to deactivate the tracking when an employee is off duty can go a long way in terms of fostering acceptance, Mr. Rerisi adds. It's possible to turn off the tracking feature in most GPS-equipped cellphones, he points out, and employees should be permitted to do this.

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