Dialed In: GPS Cell Phones

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"Do you know the way to San Jose?"

As a matter of fact, I do--thanks to a GPS-enabled mobile phone.

Similar to in-car Global Positioning System navigation devices, GPS-enabled phones let you view and listen to turn-by-turn directions via your handset. You can subscribe to a GPS navigation service through Nextel--at this writing, the only nationwide carrier I've found that offers GPS services. Nextel offers two of them: Televigation's TeleNav and Motorola's ViaMoto.

Using the GPS and Nextel's network, TeleNav and ViaMoto can send driving directions--complete with street names and mileage reports--directly to a Nextel phone. The most impressive part is the services' rerouting capabilities. If you miss a street or make a wrong turn, TeleNav and ViaMoto automatically detect that you're off the route and calculate a new route to put you back on track.

TeleNav and ViaMoto also offer location-based services. Think of them as yellow pages with driving directions: Just choose the category you're looking for (such as hotels, restaurants, or movie theaters), and the service does the rest. It determines your location and downloads onto your phone search results that include business listings typically within 5 to 10 meters of your location. Once you make your choice, you can get driving directions.

The caveat? In areas without Nextel network coverage, none of the GPS navigation tools work. The GPS functionality is currently dependent on a network signal; analog roaming won't do the trick. TeleNav and ViaMoto use servers that work with Nextel's network to transfer information.

Getting Directions

To get directions, you must launch the TeleNav or ViaMoto Java application on the phone. Then you type in the complete address of your destination (number, street name, city, and state) on the telephone keypad. On TeleNav, you can provide cross streets instead of a street number. ViaMoto's service doesn't accept zip codes, which I found inconvenient.

What's more, entering letters on a number pad is cumbersome because it usually requires pressing the same number a few times to enter the desired letter. The process is easier if your phone has T9 word-recognition technology.

Once you've entered a destination, you can save it in the application's address book for future use. For example, when you travel to an unfamiliar area, you can easily acquire return directions if you preprogram your home address on the phone.

Another way to acquire directions is by calling TeleNav or ViaMoto. TeleNav has an automated, voice-activated phone system that requests destination information on a step-by-step basis. Motorola's ViaMoto requires that you give your destination information to a live advisor.

TeleNav and ViaMoto allow you to enter addresses through their Web sites; the addresses are automatically downloaded to your phone. This feature offers a quick and easy way to enter information; it's particularly useful if you have a lot of addresses.

After the destination is entered, the service looks for your current location and downloads turn-by-turn text directions onto your phone within a minute or less--depending on the complexity of the directions and the distance. You must then launch the TeleNav or ViaMoto application on the phone, if it's not already running. Select the address you want to go to (or destination name if you assigned one), and follow the voice cues.

As I wrote this, ViaMoto released a new feature that offers traffic updates and alternate routes. I have not tested this feature.

TeleNav and ViaMoto are not alone in the burgeoning arena of GPS-based navigation services. Competitors include Network In Motion's AtlasBook, Intransix's Commute Advisor, and QuarterScope's WhereIsIt.

Basic Requirements

To use the TeleNav or ViaMoto services, you must subscribe to Nextel's voice and data plans, plus purchase one of its cell phones. Don't expect a selection of fancy phones, however. Many of Nextel's handsets are rugged, a bit chunky and clunky. Some of the devices have black-and-white screens, including the GPS-enabled Motorola i58sr and i88s. Monochrome displays will feel dated when GPS services become more sophisticated and offer color-coded maps. The only color screen available right now is on the i730 model.

In addition to the cost of Nextel's monthly data plan, you must pay setup fees ($10 for TeleNav, $15 for ViaMoto), plus monthly service charges. TeleNav ranges from $6 to $10 per month depending on how frequently you use it and the amount of data you receive, while ViaMoto costs a flat rate of $25 per month with a 3-month contract or $11 per month with a 12-month contract.

Every time you log in to the TeleNav or ViaMoto service and obtain information, you're using bandwidth from your Nextel data plan. And when you call the GPS service for directions, you're using voice minutes as well.

The bottom line? Despite the expense, using GPS navigation is one reason I'd subscribe to a carrier's data plan.

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