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Indoor WiFi Location and Beacons: Better Together

wifibeaconIn just two years, indoor location technology has taken off and attracted a lot of buzz across industries, from retailers to healthcare. But it’s no longer a conversation about just Wi-Fi – the introduction of beacon devices, including iBeacon, has added a new dimension to location technology for IT and their line of business counterparts to grapple with on how to leverage it to better reach their customer base.

Some customers have been asking about beacon technology and how it fits in with Wi-Fi, so let’s start from the beginning:

How do beacons work?

Beacons are sensors that send out Bluetooth low energy (BLE) tracking tags.  These sensors can be placed around a venue, such as a store, and a mobile device can pick up the BLE signal and determine that it is in close proximity. When a mobile app is built off of this technology, it can be used in interesting ways to interact with the end user, such as notifying a customer of a promotion for an item they are close to.

I’m having trouble differentiating Wi-Fi and beacons. What do I need to know?

Beacons have the advantage being inexpensive and easy to deploy, and they can provide granular, proximity-based indoor location for an enhanced guest experience.  This enables organizations to communicate to their consumers based on their precise location, and when combined with other indoor navigation technologies, can provide a better ‘blue dot’ experience. Unfortunately, beacons can be costly to manage. For one, they are battery-powered and need constant upkeep, and they also can be moved, stolen, or copied, which can compromise the entire engagement experience.

Wi-Fi has a broad range of use cases, from employee to guest-facing. For employees, Wi-Fi continues to provide anytime, anywhere network access, making them more productive than ever before. It equips healthcare professionals with mission-critical medical information, educators with online learning tools, retailers with mobile point of sale kiosks, and the list goes on. For the consumer,  Wi-Fi provides much-desired guest access and indoor location services . When businesses connect their consumers or guests to Wi-Fi, they can benefit from aggregate, anonymous location data analytics – such as presence detection (how many people visited the venue), average dwell time, where the majority of people are dwelling, and how many people connected to the Wi-Fi network. But Wi-Fi location, powered by existing Wi-Fi infrastructure alone lacks the granularity the beacon deployments can give.

So should I use Wi-Fi or beacons or both?

There is no single “right” answer for how to approach Wi-Fi and beacons. The decision should be based on what your organization wants to accomplish.

  • Do you just need employee connectivity? Well then you’re probably ok with just Wi-Fi.
  • Are you looking for guest connectivity? Again, Wi-Fi is enough.
  • And location analytics? You’ll need a location-enabled Wi-Fi infrastructure.
  • Are you looking to engage customers based on where they are in the venue or provide an indoor navigation experience? You might want to look into beacon technology along with apps that provide the two-way communication.

What would all this look like in action?

Imagine going to the doctor’s, getting prompted to join the high-speed wireless network (Wi-Fi) and open the healthcare app (Wi-Fi). The app greets you and automatically checks you in when you’re in the waiting room (Wi-Fi location) and shows you where your appointment is. It then opens a map of the facility and provides directions for where you need to go (beacons.) The doctor steps in with her iPad and pulls up your medical record. She then enters the prescription you need (Wi-Fi.) The app once again navigates you to the pharmacy to pick up your prescription (beacons), and your name is called for the pick-up, as they know you entered (Wi-FI location).  Meanwhile, IT passes the Wi-Fi analytics to the operations department to show peak congestion times in the pharmacy to ensure there are enough techs working on prescriptions during these times (Wi-Fi location analytics.)

Do you have beacons deployed in your organization? If so, how are they being used?

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  1. Very good article and presentation on how these technologies complement each other when considering deployment options for Indoor Positioning. There is no doubt that the end point needs to be a true Enterprise solution with Cisco MSE, but handset sensor fusion + BLE provide a great low cost bridging solution for specific types of applications – such as smartphone-based indoor navigation now.

  2. Hi, I’m the author of the article you’ve mentioned. In fact, it is possible to connect* to a beacon as most manufacturers ship them with such functionality. You can connect to a beacon when:

    1. You need to configure them
    2. You want to read on-board hardware values such as battery level, temperature, etc.
    3. Do anything else that a specific beacon hardware may offer under connected mode (blink beacon lights, play sounds, etc.)

    *while connected, iBeacon protocol is not used.

    As a matter of fact, Apple is already locking its iBeacon™ protocol exclusively to iOS devices as Google is gearing up its “Nearby” standard.

  3. Hello,
    I would have few questions for the author:

    1. Beacons are series of (Bluetooth?) sensors placed around the venue? Where those sensors report to? What service sits behind the beacons?
    2. How does the client device connect to the beacon? Over Bluetooth?
    3. When the client device connects, how it receives instructions, does the information get pushed into web browser, or some mobile app has to be pre-installed?
    4. What is the difference between the beacons and the navigation part of Cisco CME/CMX, or they could be used in combination?

    Thank you very much, topic is indeed very interesting.


  4. I want to develop an app that when you visit a large flea market for instance, you can get directions to the booths that have items that you want.. Wifi at flea market, beacons for directions to booths..Sound cool ?

    • Thanks for the comment Joe. That certainly sounds like it would be helpful for visitors. Let us know how it goes!