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Indoor Location Services: Reaching The Tipping Point

One of the many things I learned throughout my career is that mobile devices can drive industry disruption. The iPhone drove the wireless internet. Intel putting WiFi into the laptop with Centrino drove the wireless controller transition. And now Google and Apple are driving Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology into our mobile devices, moving indoor location services from a nice-to-have to a must-have in the enterprise.  

To be fair, the promise of indoor location has been with us since my days at Airespace over a decade ago. But it hasn’t taken off in a major way over this period of time. With BLE and iBeacon implemented on the next generation of smart devices, are we at a potential inflection point where indoor location services will finally take off?

In my opinion, indoor location is a classic “chicken and egg” story. A compelling user experience is needed, as is the infrastructure to support that experience. Which has to come first? In the case of GPS, the latter actually drove the former. After the government put up satellites, turn-by-turn navigation became an indispensable part of our lives.

With indoor location, I think something similar needs to happen – i.e., we need an industry standard for location services in our mobile devices that can be deployed easily and cost effectively, which will then open up the floodgates for the millions of applications out there looking to take advantage of indoor location. Fortunately, BLE is a good candidate for that standard, and the convergence of WiFi and BLE is the path to widespread deployment of indoor location services throughout venues, malls, airports, enterprises and more.

But there are still some infrastructure implementation hurdles to overcome. For one, a POE solution is needed to complement battery-operated BLE beacons. The cost and management issues associated with deploying and maintaining thousands of battery-operated devices has been one of the hurdles to the widespread adoption of indoor location to date. It is expensive to move and add physical devices, especially when site surveys and ongoing calibration is required.

Additionally, BLE must be enterprise-grade in terms of manageability and deployment. It needs the scalability to handle millions of mobile devices, and consistency so that many users on many different types of devices all receive a consistent experience and can be deployable without site surveys.

As modern wireless platforms address these challenges, we are seeing a surge in location-aware services – and the trend doesn’t appear to be reserved just to verticals like healthcare and retail where indoor location has been the Holy Grail. Applications include: wayfinding, for directions across a campus or venue; proximity messaging for targeted advertising when you enter a facility; asset tracking to monitor the location of high-value equipment; and analytics to measure foot traffic and customer behavior inside a building or store. BLE also is looking to be the future of IoT wearables.

In addition, BLE is adding value to traditional WiFi deployments. For example, it can help identify coverage holes in WiFi networks, and bring location-based security to various WiFi environments.

Just like Intel Centrino changed the wireless world forever by bringing 802.11 to the masses, the wireless world is at a similar tipping point right now where BLE technology will be used to create brand-new mobile experiences for every BLE-enabled device, which will soon be every smartphone, tablet and laptop. I, for one, am excited to see wireless technology continue to become a bigger part of our daily lives.