Beacons or Wi-Fi to deliver location based services?

1 December 2015

Many IT departments now have to consider the role of location-based services to deliver better user experience and marketing initiatives. Two of the most discussed technologies used to provide direct interaction with customers are Wi-Fi and beacons (or iBeacons).


The question of whether a business (and its customers) would benefit more from beacons or location based Wi-Fi services took an interesting turn recently when Cisco Meraki launched two new access points with integrated beacons. The latest version of Cisco’s Mobility Services Engine MSE (the bit that turns data into usable information about wireless clients in a given environment) will include integrated beacon management to provide visibility of the location, name and common identifiers for each beacon and detection of rogue or misplaced beacons.

A beacon is a Bluetooth enabled low-energy piece of hardware that provides an identifier when it detects a mobile device within its range. The device then passes the identifier on to an app in order for “something” to happen.  That something can be “deliver me a video”   or even show me the way to go home (or the toilets…)

Location-based services can be broken down into three distinct types, and demand different solutions:

  • Presence is the easiest service to define and manage. It simply means: are you here or not? Has a VIP entered the building?
  • Location takes into account the X and Y coordinates, or the actual location on a map, often within a “zone”. This is often time-dependant (think about dwell time, how long people stay in a particular place or zone) or how many people gather in a certain space
  • Proximity is how close you are to a particular thing. Is someone looking at an exhibit in a museum or approaching a hot desk so the app can bring up a desk booking page

So, the answer to the question beacon or Wi-Fi services, lies in what information you need to know about a customer’s location, size of the environment, how many users you want to know about and most importantly what should happen after the mobile device comes into range of the beacon?

If the critical answer is to deliver content, especially bandwidth heavy data such as video (which can eat up a customer’s data allowance) then the answer is ‘both’. You need a Wi-Fi network to deliver the content and the same wireless network needs to be able to integrate the app server often communicating via an API.

Each technology brings different benefits and co-locating Wi-Fi with beacon technology will provide the most flexible, productive model. Being able to manage both beacons and APs in one place will support IT departments to deliver location based services which are always on to meet the demands from other parts of the business.

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Image credit: Jonathan Nalder/Flickr, Creative Commons