Today we all want to be connected. It's a fact: when JD Power and Associates polled people over their main bugbears with hotels, connectivity ranked incredibly highly. The same result can be found when polling airport visitors, mall browsers or people attending an event such as a conference.
In almost all those cases, WiFi is the way connectivity is distributed. Yet WiFi is often poor: common complaints are that it's slow, drops connection or even struggles to connect in the first place.
Yet it doesn't have to be this way. Recently a major golfing event, featuring competing teams from two continents, hosted a hugely successful WiFi network. This not only connected the 50 000 attendees, covering 75% of the golf course. It was even used by the major broadcast partner to push televised content directly to the devices of visitors.
On top of that, attendees could connect to free WiFi at the train station and use the event's app to locate the right teeing spot or specific facilities. WiFi was even used to promote merchandise and power kiosk points of sale.
Why WiFi struggles
That sounds excellent. So if a golf course can get it right, why not a convention centre, mall or hotel?
"Some of this is due to poor design of WiFi in many places," says Alan Kinsey, Regional Manager, Xirrus, UK and South Africa, at Riverbed Technology. "You find two things: poor design and not all devices that people bring in are equal. Combine those with a third element, which is everyone bringing their own WiFi hotspots. All this manages to do is absolutely increase the level of interference. Some conventions are writing into their contracts that people aren't allowed to bring their own wireless systems."
A big issue is how WiFi is sold on coverage. A network is lit and the customers can see the signal appear on their devices, so it seems to work. But start adding in more people, stands and other encumbrances, and the WiFi quickly degrades. You can see the network, but you can't do anything on it. This is often due to inefficient use of the channels, especially on the 2.4Ghz range, as well as placing WiFi access points around the edge of the location.
Yet all too often conference owners shrug this off as individual grumblings, not realising that most of the event's attendees are having a deeply dissatisfying experience. It may seem trivial, but so is a free coffee stand – until the coffee runs out and everyone gets annoyed. Ditto with WiFi – we need that connectivity, Kinsey explains:
"What was badly understood is that convention areas are big with a lot going on. Now they are more digitally connected environments. You don't just want your stand, you want good communications so you can do your business while you are there and share data with influencers."
A potent business driver
It is true that people could rely on their own mobile data, but where is the value-added service in that? Good WiFi at a public location reflects well on the brands involved. Indeed, connectivity and WiFi are becoming synonymous: from mobile networks using it for offloading traffic to the growing group of smart devices in our homes and pockets. WiFi devices are a ubiquitous reality, so WiFi networks need to match the expectations they generate.
"WiFi is driving business. The amount of devices that are entering the market – from laptops to m2m to smart speakers – is cementing this. You have to have something that can handle all that delivery. This will continue to drive stores, conventions, enterprises, external spaces – they have to take control of what is out there."
Modern WiFi solutions are using new designs and standards to vastly improve matters. One example is to replace coverage with density models. Kinsey compared this to how mobile networks operate by deploying more base stations at strategic points. In the case of WiFi in a convention centre, access points can be mounted on the ceiling, armed with additional high-gain antennas that beam down. This creates dense areas of coverage, overlapping with each other to maintain seamless connectivity.
Another example is the use of 5Ghz channels, which have shorter range but offer much better data speeds and overall performance. It is also less likely for other devices, such as microwaves and car key fobs, to interfere with the WiFi signal.
"It can be a slow moving ship to change your WiFi and depends on your spending cycle. But it's a fact that a lot of WiFi networks have been poorly designed and implemented. That doesn't have to be the case, especially for temporary events such as concerts, sports, pop-up venues or conventions. If done right, WiFi can deliver great value."
Point in case: that golfing event. The WiFi network didn't come out of IT's budget. It came from marketing, happy to cover the costs in order to see the benefits – which were huge. The event sold over $3.5 million (R41 million) of goods each day and visits to the event's Web site doubled over the previous year. That's the power of a connected world which, unless we all start dragging cables around, is a WiFi-connected world.