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Location-based Wi-Fi services can add immediate value to Wi-Fi deployments

Marcus Burton, Technical marketing manager, Ruckus Wireless | Oct. 11, 2013
Think of Wi-Fi location as indoor GPS. Wi-Fi-based positioning systems are used where GPS is inadequate due (typically) to signal blockage.

Knowing where someone is can be important because you are then in a better position to do something for or with them. This is the basic concept behind location-based Wi-Fi services, so-called LBS.

By knowing where clients are, companies are able to help them get wherever they need to go, make the network experience better for them, use data from their location to optimize their experience, or offer and tell them stuff along the way.

Think of Wi-Fi location as indoor GPS. Wi-Fi-based positioning systems are used where GPS is inadequate due (typically) to signal blockage. Though the Wi-Fi protocol fundamentals haven't changed much in the past few years as it concerns location technology, the ecology of Wi-Fi location services have completely flipped.

Now that almost every human on the planet has multiple Wi-Fi-enabled devices—in pocket, on hip, in hand, on desk—businesses from retail and hospitality to healthcare and education are looking to capitalize. With that shift, new techniques to improve accuracy are emerging, user behavior and expectations are changing, and new location service models are being built.

Wi-Fi supports a number of different location approaches today, but the two most common are localization based on signal strength (using multiple received signal measurements to calculate the source's location) and RF fingerprinting (collecting on-site RF data to map signal measurements to locations).

But to really make sense of the location evolution within Wi-Fi, we have to put it in context of the historical goals and techniques. Asset tagging is the historical solution using Real-time location service (RTLS) tags.

So called asset tags were designed to track and monitor things, like shipping containers, medical assets, or even tag-toting people. The tags periodically collect AP signal data and report to a network-side server that does the calculating and tracking using RSSI (received signal strength indicator)-based localization and/or a previous RF fingerprint (a walkabout calibration). The server displays tag location on a map to help the end-user find something/someone. Or,  geo-fencing concepts are used to trigger alerts when specific conditions are met (e.g. a tagged asset exits the building). Despite being relatively easy to overlay on existing Wi-Fi infrastructures, asset-tracking solutions require network-side servers, and have not seen any major overhaul in the past few years.

For the consumer world, mobile devices are displacing tags as the "thing" to locate.  And like everything else in the mobile ecosystem of connected things, the breadth of appeal for phone-based apps is very wide, touching every industry and almost every user in some way.

Given Apple's critical role in the smartphone market, a potent drawback to mobile location apps has been Apple's notoriously limited Wi-Fi API access, which prevents developer access to RSSI metrics on the device itself. For this reason, client-side location processing is a major challenge, and network-side sensors and engines are necessary for RSSI calculations. Client-side data engines also have a consequence for battery life. Without iOS support, any mobile app is constrained to a limited user group or device set, and no one wants to build a customer, guest, or user-focused app that excludes Apple. Riots follow.


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