Over the summer, The Tech Herald tested the Family Locator service from Verizon Wireless along with the Usage Controls option offered as a separate service. Using the controls online and on the parental handheld itself, we showed no mercy to our two young reviewers, and pushed the parental tools to their limits.
The Family Locator service is designed for Verizon customers who are taking advantage of the family plans that are offered. The service will cost $9.99 USD per month for each phone that is used, and youíll need at least two handsets. One of them will act as the locator, this is the handset owned by the parents, and the others are locatee handsets, for the kids to use. The other service we tested, usage controls, will cost $4.99 USD per line.
[Note: A special thank you is extended to Ray (9) and Dominic (13) for helping test not just the handsets, but the limitations and core features of the Family Locator and usage controls services. The opinions given by them during the test were both insightful and very helpful. They make their father proud.]
The Family Locator service is simple to setup and mange either from the phone or online. You start by setting a zone. This zone is one aspect of the locator service. It covered about a mile Ė give or take Ė from a given address. During testing, there were two zones used at one point, while later on we moved that down to just the area around the boyís home.
Once the zone is set, parents have the ability to see a detailed map of the area and with it, get a good fix on where their child is. The one drawback to this was that it wasnít 100-percent accurate, but pretty close. If the parent knows the area, as well as where the childís friends live, itís easy to tell were the child is at a glance.
For example, we knew that our oldest tester was at his friendís house on 19th street, even though the map showed him on Pasadena, half a block over. Verizon says that the service is accurate within 50-150 meters. This is true, but really depends on the terrain. When using it in a crowded city area, buildings and other interference will cause these metrics to vary.
If the handsets moved outside of the established Zone, you can arrange to receive an alert that will notify you that the childís phone has left the area. From this point, you can locate them, call them, or send a text message. The charges for data used by the Family Locator service, including messages, are included in the monthly price. In addition to notices sent to the parentís phone, we had them sent to an email account at the same time. This offered another layer of monitoring, should the handset be turned off.
It is important to note that the Family Locator service is not a child safety measure. While it can offer some level of comfort, this is not a super GPS solution to help locate lost children in the event of an emergency. The fact that the GPS cannot be 100 percent accurate can attest to this fact, but another drawback that would limit the Family Locator service in the event of an emergency is that the service will not work across the entire Verizon footprint.
One noted drawback to the Family Locator service is that the phones being located must be powered on at the time the location signal is sent, as well as the child will need to have the device with them. If they lose the phone, or leave it at home or in a locker, the Locator function is rendered moot. We also noticed lag during location when the device being located was browsing the Internet. When it came to testing Family Locator, Dominic found it amusing that he could turn off his phone during a game of hide-and-seek to prevent being followed.
He also thought it unfair that I could track his phone, but he couldnít track his brotherís phone or me. He explained a ďwhat ifĒ situation where he was separated from the two of us, and if he was able, the Family Locator on his phone could be used to locate either his brother or my phone. A valid point, aside from the fact he forgot that he could call either one of us. However, that led to the discussion about how this wouldnít be a good option for emergencies and heís better off calling me, or the police, should the need arise.
Overall however, for parents who like to know where the kids are, but are not expecting instantaneous emergency response, this is a nifty little added feature for a house with kids. Aside from the limits, which would be expected by anyone with realistic expectations from the service, it never failed to locate a device when asked. When using VZ Navigator, in conjunction with Family Locator, directions to the located device were spot on.
The Usage Controls service was tested along side the Family Locator service. This service, as mentioned, is available for $4.99 per line. As a parent, and if given the choice, I would pick this over Family Locator if I couldnít have them both at the same time, if for nothing else than the control I had over the phones the boys were using.
The Usage Controls allow the ability to set usage allowances for text and voice, time restrictions, trusted and blocked numbers, as well as content filtering. The usage allowances will not cut the child off. Once a set limit is reached, the child will see a text message warning them if they are within fifteen minutes or fifteen text messages of their allotment.
This means that once the limit is passed, calls and text messages sent to their phone will still work. The goal with usage controls is to encourage responsible usage. With that said, responsible usage for a teenager will come and go depending on the time of day, so you will want to work with them to keep them from going over their limits.
Another feature offered by the service is time restrictions, where you can select the time of day, or the day of the week, where calls and text messages are allowed to your childís phone. One use during testing was turning off Rayís phone after 9:00 p.m. and limiting access to Dominicís phone during school hours.
Both boys were none too pleased when the time restrictions went into effect, and one weekend where stricter limits were imposed, (they were allowed access for just one hour on a Saturday) they didnít see the humor. However, the controls worked as expected, with no problems at all.
Another perk to the time restrictions ties into the trusted number feature. You are able to select trusted numbers and assign them to your childís phone, if time restrictions are currently being enforced, the phone will not have the ability to text or call out. However, they can call or text any trusted number. This means that reaching out to mom or dad just before school is out, or calling the kids on the bus stop will pose no problem.
The blocked number feature allows 20 numbers to be assigned to your childís device. Once assigned, these numbers cannot text message or call the device, nor can your child call or text these numbers. The content filter was another thing that annoyed both Ray and Dominic. With this, you can filter access to video, music, and other content including Websites, based on age. Each device connected to the Usage Controls service can have a different filter level applied to it.
While most of the Usage Controls annoyed Ray and Dominic to no end, they worked as expected, and for a parent that will soon need to purchase two phones, the extra $4.99 USD a month per line isnít so much when you can limit the worry of overages, and use the family plan to pay one set monthly fee.
To see the reviews on the three phones used during the test of the Family Locator and Usage Controls service offerings, click the links below.