One of the most interesting companies I’ve come across in a while is OpenSignal. I met the young CTO James Robinson at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, and I’ve been expecting to hear a lot more about the company ever since.
OpenSignal provides what can best be described as crowd sourced coverage maps for mobile network operators. The idea behind it is – like all the best ideas – completely obvious once you’ve heard it, so that it’s easy to understand both how it works and why it is important.
Mobile network operators make coverage maps based on the configuration and power outputs of their networks. They know where their base stations are, and they know how hard they are pushing out their signal in each location, so they can deduce what the coverage and signal strength is like at known locations.
OpenSignal’s model turns this on its head. It starts from the premise that every mobile phone is a perfectly designed signal strength measurement instrument; and the relative open-ness of the smartphone OS platforms makes it possible to build apps that can use, transform and share those signal strength measurements.
So the company offers end-users a free downloadable application that presents them with useful information, derived from the phone’s own hardware, about what the link conditions in the specific neighbourhood where the phone finds itself. End-users benefit because they understand better what the network is doing, where the nearest base stations are, and therefore what they could do if they wanted to grab such improvements in signal quality as are available locally. There are pledges of anonymity for the data, and an API for anyone who wants to build more apps using the coverage information.
OpenSignal benefits because the application send the signal strength measurements to its own back end platform, together with time and location stamps (from the phone’s GPS, not network triangulation) so that it can make really accurate maps of coverage as it is experienced by the end-points, not just as it looks to the operator’s network management tools.
This really clever idea has lots of uses. Network operators can use it, of course, to manage their networks better, and to fine tune the models that they use to manage coverage. They can also use it, of course, for marketing purposes, to provide some substance for claims about superior coverage – and some have done exactly that.
Regulators can use, it to check that operators are complying with license conditions including roll-out or service quality obligations. If they were inclined to, device manufacturers could use it too, because the back-end platform knows not only where the signal strength measurements were made but what kind of device made them. So it’s possible to compare the performance of different devices under the same network conditions.
OpenSignal is a small, young, smart, British company. Inevitably, it’s based in the Clerkenwell area of London, and has a few score employees. Its blog has well-written intellectually demanding content, not a dreary list of exhibition attendances. It has other great ideas, like a crowd-sourced weather map using the smartphones’ built in barometers.
The last time I looked it seemed to me that the technological brilliance of the company’s solution was running ahead of its ability to monetise its own cleverness. In August it raised $4m from an investment round led by Qualcomm Ventures. Acquisition, or some other route into the big leagues, may beckon soon. One way or another, I don’t expect the current situation to persist for long.
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