- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

HONG KONG A cell-phone company has created a text-messaging service that lets customers know if they're near a building where victims of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus lived or worked.
The fee-based service, offered by Sunday Communications, represents a novel use of an up-and-coming technology called location awareness.
The wireless carrier relies on data the government issues daily on buildings where hospitalized SARS patients stayed in the previous 10 days, and tailors the information for its subscribers.
With a few button punches on their handset keypads, subscribers can request a text message that lists all the SARS-affected buildings within a kilometer, or 0.62 miles, of the calling location.
Some Hong Kong newspapers are running maps based on the free Health Department information on which the service relies. The latest bulletin, which also appears on a government Web site, lists 119 Hong Kong addresses.
But the mobile service is more convenient.
Location-based phone services, already used in Europe for playing hide-and-seek-type games and finding restaurants and bars, remain in their infancy. A marketer's dream, the concept is a nightmare to some privacy advocates.
Automatic detection of cell phones can occur by measuring the intensity of a handset's signals at multiple cell towers, a method known as triangulation. Phones can also be equipped with Global Positioning System technology.
But automatic detection is still relatively uncommon.
U.S. cell-phone providers, for instance, have been struggling with a federal mandate that such capabilities be built in for 911 calls.
A text-messaging service in London to warn users if there is a terrorist attack nearby still requires punching in postal codes. In enabling automatic detection for the SARS warnings, Sunday Communications demonstrates the potential for location-based services.
Using Intelligent Network, developed by Canadian company Nortel Networks, Sunday's coverage of Hong Kong is divided into 2,000 to 3,000 cell zones, Sunday's new technology group director, Henry Wong, said yesterday.
Subscribers punch in "260" for a list of the SARS buildings in Chinese or "261" for English, and the signal is detected by the nearest cell tower. Based on the tower that receives the signal, the subscriber's location is detected and a relevant list of buildings gets transmitted to the mobile phone within a second, Mr. Wong said.
Available since April 14, the SARS text service has been used by 20,000 of Sunday's 600,000 subscribers.
Subscribers pay the cost of a one-minute local phone call, which varies from the equivalent of 6 to 16 U.S. cents, customer-service agent Marco Hau said.
Hong Kong has one of the highest concentrations of mobile-phone usage in the world. Earlier this month, Hong Kong authorities used text messaging sending a blanket message to about 6 million mobile phones to quell an Internet rumor that Hong Kong had been designated an "infected city."
Some mobile-phone users said they like the idea of location-based warnings for SARS, which has killed at least 99 persons and infected more than 1,400 in Hong Kong alone.
"It will be useful when I go into hard-hit areas," said Vivian Ho, a 27-year-old lawyer and Sunday Communications subscriber.
Others complained they are getting too much information on SARS already. Sunday subscriber Lee Kam-hung said the service could only make people more fearful.
"If people start running away from those affected buildings, we'll only have more chaos," said Mr. Lee, a 42-year-old power-station employee.
Subscribers of rival services say they wished their wireless providers would offer a similar feature.
"I would definitely use it to increase alertness if my company had such a service," said Law Yiu-kwong, a 42-year-old taxi driver who has been wearing surgical masks every day for weeks.

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