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JCDecaux’s partnership with Vodafone to deploy small cells at billboards & bus shelters could enable proximity targeting of ads.

JCDecaux has announced a partnership with Vodafone to build small cell networks on street furniture and billboards to boost network performance.”

You can turn off Bluetooth, but you’re probably not going to turn off cell service.

At face value JCDecaux are simply helping Vodafone and the people sheltering at their bus shelters with the enhanced connectivity small cell can deliver. Dig deeper and there lies an opportunity to exploit the identity of members of the public whose phones have “handed them in” (to use the small cell vernacular) to the stronger cell phone signal coming from the small cell they are standing near. The ad on that JCD billboard can then get very personal. Standing in the rain, waiting for your bus, you are much more likely to see that ad, which could be shown on the billboard display as well as your phone.

One of the challenges with iBeacon is that your phone may see the beacon but if the cell coverage is poor, delivering the targeted experience can be challenging, with small cell this issue doesn’t exist. By virtue of having moved into the coverage of the small cell, your identity is known and your connectivity is enhanced at the same time. Content delivery and cloud based targeting can continue in real time.

The dynamics are similar but different from that of iBeacon. This could be proximity based targeting on a massive scale. The identity of the person is known (by the telco), but questions still abound. How do you manage privacy? Telcos suddenly are back in the loop (they are largely cut out by BLE beacons), but they are not going to get away with sharing this information without taking the high road with the subscribers whose data they are entrusted with. In the wake of Titan’s issues (another outdoor advertising company) with the city of New York being forced to have the beacons housed in their phone booths deactivated, this is a much higher stakes game. Small cells cost more than beacons, so having to remove them would be bad, and local government and consumers have an interest in the enhanced connectivity that they deliver so it’s harder to ask them to be removed.

To do a good job of the opt-in, you need to have the cooperation of Apple and Google. Their privacy management is sometimes seen as a pain by developers, but without it we wouldn’t be entrusted with the sensitive information from iBeacon. Why should the smartphone OS providers cooperate with the telcos in enabling Small Cell ads when they just managed to cut them out of the loop with BLE?

The carrier and the outdoor advertisers also have another weapon that a BLE beacon provider lacks; they can barter the value of the connectivity for the information they can monetize. For example on arriving at the bus shelter, you could get offered free data, free streaming video over 4G, brought to you by the car show room opposite with a targeted ad presenting that opportunity. Free data while you are in small cell coverage, a lower phone bill, high def entertainment, I might be open to sharing my identity for that.

The proximity dynamics of small cells are different to iBeacon as well. If the small cell is covering a city block, the “hand in” you get may be less useful than even the very course grain near/far ranging that iBeacon offers.

The biggest challenge with small cell is that you aren’t going to address 100% of the passers-by with your service. In this case, only Vodafone customers may enjoy the more targeted experience. If the cell phone providers collaborate on shared spectrum and roaming, that issue could be mitigated too. It might be worth all the boring meetings with those other carriers you hate, in order to climb out of the “dumb pipe”.

So welcome back to telcos! Predictions of your demise were greatly exaggerated; but you have a lot of work to do to pull this off. The best thing for Vodafone to do is get the network deployed, work on your privacy strategy, the consultations with privacy groups, government, the plumbing with the advertisers, links into the mobile OS privacy controls, and then one day we might notice the ads on our JCD billboards suddenly becoming a lot more relevant.

Given the dysfunction and challenges of getting things done within telcos, while small cell is another great tool on the context marketing tool kit, the Bluetooth beacon players should still push on full speed ahead.