Different Strokes: One Multi-Site WLAN Does Not Fit All

For the upcoming March 2010 Aberdeen benchmark report, Multi-Site and Campus-Area Wireless LANs: Advantages of the Centralized Approach, 163 organizations were surveyed regarding their use of multi-site and campus-area (“non-site-contiguous”) wireless LANs (WLANs).

Certain vertical sectors had an especially strong representation among respondents — higher education, healthcare, hospitality and retail represented approximately 40 percent of the total respondent base. The pressures of these specific industry sectors differ, and this affects the strategies they choose in response.

Mobility Drives Increasing WLAN Demand

One of the top pressures driving the integration of multi-site and campus-area wireless LANs was the increasing demand for WLAN coverage at all of the organization’s locations. This is driven in large part by the increasing demand for mobility overall; the 2009 Aberdeen benchmark report More Mobility — Less Budget: Enterprise Strategies in the Current Economic Downturn found that 84 percent of organizations already had a mobile initiative in place, a rate that has grown consistently since 2006.

From November 2006 through December 2009, the percentage of respondents who had a mobility initiative in place increased 42 percent, while the percentage of those who had no plans for mobility decreased by 93 percent. This demand for mobility, with its accompanying need for wireless connectivity, is the primary force driving the increased demand for WLAN coverage among all respondents.

Top Sector Pressures

Survey respondents were asked to rank-order the top pressures driving the integration of their multi-site or campus-area WLANs.

The pressure to increase staff productivity correlates with prior Aberdeen research that increased mobility results in increased productivity, while the demand for improved WLAN performance illustrates an increasing reliance on the WLAN as core network infrastructure versus simply a “network of convenience.”

There is an inherent logic to the higher level of interest in multi-location WLANs by sector end-users:

Higher education. The (ever-changing) demographics of the student population are creating a demand for full-speed wireless access throughout every corner of the institution, both indoors and out. Every mobile device, smartphone, game machine and media player is a potential consumer of mobile broadband access.

Healthcare (health/medical). Hospitals and medical campuses have quickly adopted wireless technology to keep critical personnel in constant touch, and to track the location of valuable equipment. The move to digital medical records places new security demands and compliance requirements on mobile access to healthcare data.

Hospitality/retail. Although these two sectors do have differentiated needs, they share certain attributes: Both are typically commercial chain or franchise business models that were relatively early adopters of WLAN — hospitality for guest services purposes, retail for mobile point-of-sale and store inventory devices — and both are ripe for system upgrades because of their system longevity. Both are also typically light in local IT support resources at remote locations.

Again, an increase in demand for WLAN coverage at all sites, along with improving WLAN performance, is seen as a top pressure among all respondents. Higher education shows a larger percentage of respondents who chose the coverage issue as a top pressure, corresponding to student demands for constant connectivity in every corner of campus. Healthcare is slightly higher than all respondents, whereas there is considerably less demand in hospitality and retail. Coverage issues are less of a pressure in this sector because they typically have older-generation WLAN infrastructure and their coverage issues have typically already been addressed.

In fact, hospitality and retail experience divergent pressures from all respondents, as well as the other sectors. More of them experience increased demand for improved WLAN performance because their older-generation infrastructure (typically WiFi 802.11b or 802.11a ) is not delivering the performance expected by their guests, customers and staff, many of whom experience a higher level of wireless performance at home or at work.

Higher education respondents selected the same pressure for a similar reason: Students who are Web surfing, downloading video, playing online games — and even studying — are used to uncompromised bandwidth at home, and they carry that expectation forward as a demand at school.

Healthcare feels a markedly higher pressure to secure WLANs from unauthorized access, based on the need to comply with industry and governmental regulations relating to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as contact information and social security numbers, medical records protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and other sensitive medical data. Higher education also feels this pressure, but to a lesser degree, primarily driven by PII compliance, as well the need to protect student academic records.

Hospitality and retail have another strong outlier in their prioritization of the pressure of telecommunications services cost reduction. This is driven in part by their common business structure — typically a franchise or chain operation with central executive, administration and IT services provided by a remote headquarters location. This typically implies executives and other employees who travel extensively from site to site, who therefore incur significant roaming charges for carrier wireless services. This cost is particularly onerous for those who roam across international borders.

Dual-mode smartphones (preconfigured for both WLAN and carrier service connectivity), when enabled for wireless Voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls can dramatically reduce carrier charges by routing all incoming and outgoing calls via the WLAN instead of via the carrier. It’s a logical conclusion that headquarters’ operations would look to leverage the in-place WLAN for voice calls as a way to lower telecommunications expense.

Summary Findings

As in the idiom “different strokes for different folks,” one size does not fit all when it comes to understanding the main pressures and strategies driving multi-site and campus-area WLAN integration. The key to understanding market sector differentials lies in identifying the fundamental behavioral distinctions among each of the market sector constituencies.

In the case of higher education, the high-bandwidth wireless connectivity expectations of the student population are driving the need for speed and coverage. In the healthcare sector, the life and death nature of transactions is driving the delivery of potentially life-saving data and voice-rich communications to every corner of the institution. This, combined with the overriding need to secure patient medical and personal data is driving network upgrades for maximum throughput and security.

Hospitality and retail are responding to different pressures. Their aging ‘first-generation’ wireless infrastructures are underperforming, and straining their limited on-site IT resources. They need to address mounting complaints among hotel guests for faster and better wireless access, while they address corporate demands to leverage the wireless infrastructure to lower their overall telecom costs.

Each of the sectors rated the action of upgrading WLAN hardware among its top three priorities. This coincides with the ratification of the 802.11n standard by the IEEE in September 2009, and may signal the unleashing of a new inflection point of increased adoption of 802.11n by the broader market.

Andrew Borg is a senior research analyst with the wireless and mobility practice at the Aberdeen Group. Gaurav Patil is a research associate with Aberdeen’s communications group.

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