There’s no question that a robust, solid WiFi network is something that all businesses require today. For most companies, the wireless network was the second network, and an augmentation to the wired network. However, times have changed and what was once the exception has become the norm in many cases. The most obvious driver of WiFi is the flood of mobile, WiFi-only devices making their way into our schools, hospitals, stores, and workplaces.
However, the wireless network must do more than just connect devices – that’s table stakes. It has now become the platform for organizations to engage with customers, students, clinicians, and workers. Getting full business value from the wireless network requires organizations to think differently about the technology. Instead of just being concerned with the number of devices being connected, the following six points should be the key considerations for WiFi in this “wireless first” era.
1) The applications being run over WiFi: Organizations must be aware of the variety of applications that use the wireless network as the primary network. Particular attention should be paid to applications that are considered “mobile only” such as mobile healthcare applications or wireless point-of-sale. The quality and reliability of the WiFi will have a big impact on the ROI that business gets from mobile applications.
2) Guest access: The ease of bringing guests on to a wireless network can be the difference between a retailer being able to push a mobile coupon to a customer and capturing an impulse purchase or having the customer walk out the door. Because of this, it confounds me how difficult some manufactures have made guest access provisioning. This should be done through some sort of social login, such as Facebook and Twitter and needs to be so simple that anyone that knows how to browse the web can do it.
3) Capacity planning. Network managers must fully understand the current traffic levels that traverse the WiFi network. However, the job isn’t done there. Just as important is the ability to project traffic growth over the next three to five years, depending on replacement cycle. WiFi deployments require careful planning for today’ — and tomorrow’s — needs to maximize the investment in the technology.
4) Administration model. Today there are numerous ways to manage wireless infrastructure including a centralized controller, cloud-controller, or controller-less solution. I don’t believe there’s really a right answer here for all companies. Rather, it depends on the preference of the business. In general, a cloud based controller or controller-less solution is better for small businesses, while larger enterprises will gravitate towards a physical controller. However, these are just guidelines and each business should determine which model best suits its own management practices best.
5) Security and compliance. Wireless endpoints are increasingly being used for mission-critical applications that transmit sensitive customer data. Organizations of all sizes should fully understand any regulatory requirements with which the WiFi network must comply. Also, securing the solution should be easy, but it also must provide the highest levels of security to protect both the company and the workers.
6) Which technology to deploy. There are currently multiple WiFi technology choices to choose from. One option is to deploy 802.11N, which is the lowest cost solution but is somewhat outdated. Another option is wave 1 of 802.11AC. This standard is certainly more current and is the most common choice for WiFi today. Alternatively, businesses could wait for wave 2 of 802.11AC. Wave 2 will bring multigigabit speeds to WiFi, as well as a feature called multi-user MIMO, which allows bandwidth to be dedicated on a per user basis. Although 802.11AC wave 2 promises many benefits, there are some significant implications to the wired network. My belief is that organizations should be aggressive with wave 1 and then augment with wave 2 where required.
7) Big data and analytics. The wireless network is in a unique position to understand who is on the network, what the user has been doing and what location the person is in. Additionally, by tying into social network programs, the wireless network can mine each interaction for valuable information that can be used to provide highly customized services. It’s my belief that the data that the wireless solutions providers capture and the analytics performed on this data (with or without a partner) will become the most significant competitive differentiators for this industry moving forward.
Make no mistake, the wireless network is now a strategic business asset and it’s time for IT leaders and company executives to expect more from WiFi. Use the above criteria to start thinking “mobile first”.