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Bluetooth World - Day One Recap

My Bluetooth World day one started with a great conversation over breakfast as I presented on the need and opportunity for innovation in healthcare using Bluetooth enabled solutions. Our group opened up and had some fantastic discussion around some of the barriers that are currently challenging this industry such as limited numbers of Bluetooth radios being integrated into medical device solutions for connectivity. We progressed to discussion on all of the possible use cases as well as the opportunity for the data from an IoT-enabled world of healthcare to create new use cases as we better understand interactions between machines and humans.

The keynote speeches and individual presentations had great information, I was most interested in the direction of Bluetooth and the features that are coming shortly, especially the improvements to the meshing capabilities and range as these will open the door for great new use cases.

Also of personal interest was Kiyo Kubo’s talk about Bluetooth LE at Levi’s Stadium and the pain of getting to where it is today. Kiyo had gone through all of the challenges around Apple reducing their probing rates to almost nil and randomization of MAC addresses in the probing frames, forcing a change over to Bluetooth. They then had to develop a number of tools to make it a success both from an initial deployment and long term manageability.

The Expo floor had a wide variety of use cases from BLE managed LED lighting that synced with car audio to IoT-enabled hearing aids that would use location and ambient sound to automatically adjust their sound levels and noise filtration via a cloud interface.

It’s WLPC Time Again

The WLAN Pros Conference is truly a unique experience that I look forward to all year long. Throughout the year we are inundated with vendor marketing material and embroiled in competition. WLPC is a few days where we can come together as individuals, educate each other, build the community and challenge each other to be better at our craft. This year’s conference will be in sunny Phoenix, AZ. Read more about it here. If you’ve never been before and you have an interest in Wi-Fi I urge you to make plans to attend. It is a great opportunity to network and learn from others in the field.

This environment provides a great opportunity to get up and speak about something you are passionate about. The mix of longer presentations and ten talks allow for a lot of variety and depth of topics. This year I’ve selected a topic on Healthcare wireless as my main presentation topic and then will use a Ten Talk slot to provide a sneak peak into my Bluetooth World presentation that I will be giving in March at Levi’s Stadium.

Who's Got it Better Than Aruba? Nobody, When It's Integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

Wireless Field Day wrapped up last week with an incredible visit to Levi's Stadium, home of my San Francisco 49ers. As both a rabid football and Wi-Fi fan, it doesn't get any better than this to culminate an already awesome week. Aruba Networks and Levi's Stadium have set a new bar in terms of connectivity, engagement with the fan base and building for the mobile generation. Mobile Engagement at the stadium is done leveraging a custom app that has been location enabled using Aruba's Meridian SDK and a hybrid Wi-Fi and low energy bluetooth (BLE) infrastructure. If you aren't familiar with beacons and low energy bluetooth, please refer to my previous posts on the subject as they will serve as a good primer.

Managing and Deploying a Beacon Infrastructure
We've all seen a lot of hype around what BLE can do for you, but little has been mentioned about some of the challenges around managing these infrastructures. I had an opportunity to spend some time with Aruba Meridian back in January of this year and go through a class in which we built an underlying beacon infrastructure configuration and then developed an app that used that infrastructure. This process involved using the Aruba Beacons app and individually configuring each beacon. This process applies for firmware upgrades and reprogramming the beacons as well, even after deployment unless some other system is in place. Inherently beacons require that you are within their proximity 30-50' typically to do this kind of work. Needless to say in an environment like Levi's Stadium this would be unmanageable.

The Aruba Advantage
Aruba's infrastructure enables the management of beacons via bluetooth radios resident on their new access points or retrofit on the previous generation of APs via a USB bluetooth beacon. Aruba entered the hardware world of beacons to do right by their customers in developing an end-to-end solution that is supportable. This configuration enables beacon configuration and firmware updates to be executed via the Meridian cloud and pushed down to the beacons via controllers/instant APs and over the bluetooth radios to the beacons themselves.

I have been a fan of Meridian Apps from the beginning and commend Aruba for pulling the trigger and acquiring the company. The "better together" mantra definitely rings true here as Meridian simplifies the most difficult piece of engaging customers--the mobile app. If you've never explored this world, it is a confusing mix of custom app developers, SDKs, etc. each with their own pros and cons. Meridian offers two levels of integration, one is the Meridian app maker and the second is the their SDK.

AppMaker and Navigation
The AppMaker simplifies the app creation process so much that most organizations could do this themselves if desired. I do recommend some guidance around the structure and design of the app, but it is built so that a marketing person could actually construct the app. My first go at building an app that included some points of interest, wayfinding, etc. took a couple of hours for something that would pass as an enterprise-grade mobile app. I've made multiple comments on social media about the wayfinding capabilities, especially the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) routing. The mobile app creator simply draws in the "roads" and the Meridian engine handles the routing. For each of these roads there is a flag as to whether or not that road is ADA accessible, enabling a user to request accessible routing if desired.

"Google Maps, but Indoors" is one of the phrases heard most when it comes to describing what wayfinding is to the layperson. Aruba's BluDot solution gives you that real-time blue dot experience that shows you your current position. This makes finding directions easier as there is no need to enter a source and a destination, you simply need to know where you want to go. BluDot is powered by a combination of beacons and the Meridian cloud service and is the best in the business at doing this. The maps use a scalar vector floor plan to ensure navigation and zooming in/out look great and enable the app creator to create points of interest throughout the map.

Campaigns are the traditional push messaging of the beaconing world and allow for interaction with end users. Campaigns can be configured to run once, on a set schedule, or for a particular zone. Again Aruba does a brilliant job in making this easy to implement and understand. These push messages can make your visitors aware of a guest network, offer incentives, make them aware of current promotions, etc.

Hyperlocation, A New Era of Location Services

I had the opportunity this week to visit Cisco Systems with the the Wireless Field Day 8 crew this past week to discuss the updates to the Cisco location services roadmap. This space has been a passion of mine for a number of years and to see major advances in the last 12-18 months has really gotten me energized again about the possibilities that are out there.

Cisco provided a recap of how we got to where we are today and I wanted to do the same to ensure that the concepts here are captured properly.

Location services use the triangulation concept to position a device within some probability of accuracy. In the example below, the object being tracked is roughly equidistant from the access points in the upper and left access points and a bit further from the right access point. As you may already know, under most conditions the best accuracy that can be expected is 3-5 meters and there is no certainty that the tracked client will be in a specific room as it could be on the other side of a wall, etc. This has lead to minimal adoption of location services as often this information simply isn't good enough to be useful. It's also important to note as Cisco mentioned in their discussion that for a packet to be seen by all three APs in this scenario, it must be a broadcast packet. On many devices, broadcast packets are becoming more uncommon while associated to an access point. This means that the refresh rate of this location information is slowing down, decreasing its usefulness further.

One of Cisco's recent innovations to assist this refresh rate issue is known as FastLocate. This uses data packets to improve the rate at which we see packets. Since data packets only exist between the client and the AP that it is associated (green arrow in the FastLocate diagram), the other APs have to go off-channel briefly to hear these packets as well. This process improves the refresh rate from approximately 1 frame per 60 seconds to 1 frame per 10 seconds. It's important to note that while this does not improve the actual location measurements, it does provide more data points which allows for better overall resolution and causes less "jumping" in which clients appear to teleport from one location to another.

Cisco's Hyperlocation Module (HALO)
The HALO module was the highlight of the Cisco presentation for me as I had not seen one of these up close yet. The HALO module leverages a 32 element (16 2.4GHz and 32 dual-band 2.4/5GHz) phased array antenna that sits on a collar surrounding the access point and attaches via a special connector on the new wireless security module. This array is comprised of directional antennas which enables far greater location accuracy and is truly the first real leap in wireless location accuracy in quite some time. Since each of these antennas are facing different directions and are all slightly located apart from each other, it is possible for the APs to calculate Angle of Arrival (AoA) in the wireless signal. This combined with the traditional triangulation allows for very specific accuracy down to approximately 1 meter, which is competitive with BLE capabilities. Further testing will be required to see if these claims hold up and if we can see actual room level (or better yet bed, etc.) accuracy, but I believe strongly that this will be the case in most situations. Currently this limited to associated clients only, but there is a near term roadmap for products that beacon on regular intervals such as RTLS tags. Tracking unassociated devices is of lesser priority right now, but is on the road map.

Halo to Usher in a New Era of Location Services for Healthcare
Enabling an infrastructure with serious location capabilities isn't cheap at roughly $1000 per access point (MSRP), so the use cases need to be substantial. HALO is a premium engagement and location offering that will not be adopted by the masses, however those who can leverage it effectively stand to offer tremendous value to their customers, patients, stakeholders, etc. Hospital environments to be the single most valuable environment for HALO, especially after RTLS tags are added to the mix. This environment is highly mobile and ripe for disruptive location technologies that can automate work flow and enable meaningful interactions and engagement. Hospitals today leverage multiple location systems that facilitate portions of work flow, however very infrequently are they integrated together well enough to gain additional actionable insights. There are a number of point products addressing nurse rounding, locating wheelchairs and beds, theft prevention (babies and assets), etc. Some of the "bleeding edge" use cases include playing a loved one's voice over IP speakers to coax an elderly patient back into bed or having a display cheer up a child who is battling cancer when they near the screen. In theory, this HALO module is enabling a world in which we know where every associated wireless device is down to a matter of feet, without necessitating RTLS tags. This opens the data floodgates for actionable intelligence at unprecedented levels.

Work Flow Optimization
RTLS vendors have been selling their solutions for years to address these issues and while there are clear ROIs in most cases, it still doesn't get adopted due to significant cost and/or limitations for a single purpose system. HALO offers the ability to gain insight into numerous inefficiencies within a hospital and can improve any investment already made in tags and RTLS systems. More importantly a truly location-enabled work flow could facilitate meaningful interruption ensuring that nurses are only getting notifications when absolutely necessary and routing other requests to someone who is better positioned to assist a patient quickly. These use cases have been well defined over the years and HALO is an enabler to making these a reality.

Throughput Analytics
Integrated with Prime and the MSE, HALO can provide improved throughput analytics for the waiting rooms. I'd expect this to get down to individual care arcs in which an organization could track a single patient progressing through their visit and providing trends. This would provide feedback into the work flow optimization process and enable further analysis of the changes made to the work flow processes.

Patient Engagement
There has been a lot of buzz around "mobile engagement" lately and as a professional in this field I can attest that there certainly are many options and the jury is out as to which is the best one at this point. I am a huge proponent of the Low-Energy Bluetooth solutions out there, however HALO may be the first "Wi-Fi only" offering that offers the ability to truly engage with BLE-like location capabilities. Organizations evaluating these solutions need to account for the care and feeding of a BLE-based solution as like many of the RTLS offerings there is a battery powered infrastructure that has to be maintained.

Turning Low-Energy Bluetooth (BLE) Upside Down
One of the major limitations to the Low-Energy Bluetooth solutions is that they are almost exactly backwards from RTLS solutions in that mobile assets are required to interact with fixed (usually) assets. This typically means an app on a Smartphone (carried by a mobile user) is the typical mode of engagement and this is an active process. A few use cases of cropped up recently in which a BLE-beacon is strapped to a patient to monitor them as they move through an environment. To accomplish this the interaction points along the way require a tablet mounted to the wall to pick up on the patient's tag and initiate the engagement work flow. This reverse BLE-solution is somewhat innovative and solves a specific problem, however we need a world in which mobile assets are interacting with other assets on demand and relative proximity to each other should be irrelevant as long as I have access to the back end data. I believe that HALO is positioned to do exactly this as it evolves and in doing so will allow the use of Wi-Fi based geofencing capabilities indoor, reducing or possibly even eliminating the need for traditional fixed beacons. At the very least this will provide us new deployment options and can be combined with a BLE infrastructure to offer infinite interaction capabilities.

Internet of Things
The items above all point towards enabling the Internet of Things (IoT) and allowing real time interactions between devices to the betterment of the healthcare environment. An example of this could be the lifecycle of an infusion pump. These devices follow a predictable cycle in which they move from being clean through being attached to a patient and ultimately wind up having to be cleaned again before being released back to the care areas. In this scenario, alarms could be triggered by a device that has not been put in a maintenance mode and is following an unexpected path, possibly avoiding a dirty pump being brought to a patient, etc.

Using HALO
Effectively using HALO requires that the APs are mounted to the ceiling grid as they need clear line of sight. Density is expected to be at least one AP every 50' with each covering roughly 2500 square feet. Environments using smartphones, etc. will typically see smaller square footages per AP due to the requirements of those smartphones, so the density of these modules will be higher.

Installations are expected to take longer due to specific needs around mounting locations. X,Y,Z coordinates need to be exact as well as the HALO module rotational orientation and alignment with antenna 0 of the 32 element array. These positions must be set in Prime 3.0 to provide proper location capabilities.

HALO Requirements
Cisco 3600/3700 AP (and future access points)
Cisco Wireless LAN Controller running 8.1 MR3 (8.1.123.x)
Cisco Prime 3.0
Cisco Mobility Services Engine
Cisco Connected Mobile Experience (CMX) 10.2.1

Building a Contextually Aware Network: Beacons (Part 1 of 4)


Location Based Services have been a passion of mine for quite awhile, however until recently accuracy has been a challenge. Anyone who has spent hours either trying to tune or use a Wi-Fi only Real-time Location System (RTLS) network will know exactly what I am talking about. In order to address this, these RTLS networks were often enhanced by adding exciters that operated either on infrared, ultrasonic or similar short range technology. iBeacons work like an exciter in an RTLS network in that they emit a signal carrying a code, in this case a set of numbers that are unique to that particular iBeacon. These beacons operate on Low-Energy Bluetooth or BLE for short (also called Bluetooth Smart). A single beacon provides proximity, which is somewhat different than location - proximity is akin to giving someone a landmark rather than GPS coordinates when asked to give a location. A smart phone acts like the RTLS tag and provides the means to uplink to the network and send the iBeacon's information as the location. The XY coordinates of a given Beacon are supplied by the management system. Triangulation can still be accomplished by returning three iBeacon numbers. Since BLE has a small footprint by comparison to an access point, the ability to place a client on a map is greatly increased, but the need for iBeacons will be substantially greater. This provides some interesting capabilities for as there is no longer have the need for a location ready wireless network to provide proximity or location for some use cases.

Bluetooth LE Technical Details

Like the classic Bluetooth, BLE uses the same 2.4GHz ISM band that Wi-Fi operates. However, it divides the band into forty 2MHz wide channels, each spaced 1MHz apart. These channels are divided into two types - advertising (3 available channels) and data (37 channels). BLE throughput is fairly low, with a top speed of approximately 1Mbps. The beacons attempt to avoid 2.4GHz Wi-Fi channels, by operating in the "gaps" at the edges between Channels 1/6 and 6/11, as well as above channel 11. The three advertising channels (Ch. 37-39) are located below channel 1, between 1 and 6 and at the end of the range. These locations are ideal as they have the minimum amount of interference.

The above diagram depicts the 2.4GHz spectrum with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low-Energy channels. The dark blue channels are the advertising channels, while the light blue are the data bearing channels.


Beacons come in all shapes and sizes to fit the application for which they are being used. All beacons are fairly inexpensive ranging from $10-50 dollars depending on size and battery life.
Beacon Brands

There are numerous iBeacon manufacturers on the market, Aislelabs recently published a report on hardware available on the market. Currently three Beacons stand out from the rest in my mind:

The Aruba iBeacons offer remote management features when integrated with an Aruba wireless network. For anyone deploying a large number of iBeacons this is a very welcome addition to the iBeacon offering. Given the ROI on some iBeacon deployments, it is no surprise that some companies are investigating deploying an Aruba network to leverage the management capabilities. These beacons serve as a key cornerstone of the Aruba Mobile Engagement solution.

Qualcomm developed the Gimbal beacon which meets the iBeacon standards, but has added a layer of security unrivaled by any other manufacturer currently. Gimbal beacons rapidly rotate their keys making them quite secure, but may also operate as an iBeacon.

Radius Networks
Radius Networks made waves announcing a partnership with Aerohive to combine Wi-Fi and Beacon technologies for the first available solution. The Radius beacon hardware isn't differentiated from many of the other solutions out there, however the forward looking partnership is noteworthy.

From left to right: Aruba Networks iBeacons, Gimbal Beacons, Radius Networks beacons.

How Beacons Work

iBeacons broadcast a unique code every interval. There are three fields broadcast - the Universally Unique Identifier or "UUID" (16 bytes), the Major (2 bytes) and Minor (2 bytes). The UUID is typically specific to an app and deployment use case. The Major field is more specific and is typically a subset of the use case identified in the UUID. Lastly, the minor field is specific to the site. A simple example would be as follows:

The UUID is long and easy to make unique. Standardizing the departments allows for consistency from store to store, while the major number could differentiate store locations. The UUID, Major and Minor numbers are tied together at the application level to provide meaning. Typically the Beacons do not communicate with each other, however this is beginning to change.

iBeacon Location


Apple implemented Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to approximate the distance from a device to a specific iBeacon. These distances can be placed in one of three ranging categories - immediate, Near, or Far. A fourth category of Unknown exists, but it is outside of the scope of this post. Immediate proximity indicates that the phone is very near the beacon, typically a sub 1-meter distance. Near implies clear line of sight to the beacon at a distance between 1-3 meters, it is important to note that an obstructed pathway to an iBeacon may result in a Far reading. Far means that the phone is in range of beacon but at such a distance that it is difficult to approximate the location. This may a distance of up to 20m by some beacon specifications, however typically is an obstructed pathway.


iBeacon accuracy is a function of signal strength and is displayed as a confidence factor. In a scenario where a "Far" value is received from the ranging function, the Accuracy indicator is often what should be used. As a phone moves closer to the beacon, the signal strength increases. With the increased signal strength, the location confidence is also increased, reducing the size of the location indicator on the phone. This illustration and description of range and accuracy can be found in the Apple "Getting Started with iBeacon" guide for developers and does a great job of illustrating the point.


Beacon placements depend on the type of beacons and the applications for which they are being deployed. Battery life is one of the most critical concerns here as consideration of serviceability must be taken into account. I encourage everyone to use USB offerings when it makes sense as these can either piggyback off an access point, computer, USB equipped television, or even a simple AC to USB power adapter. However, this will not always be possible due to placement requirements dictated by the application use case.

This fictitious mall map shows possible ways to place beacons to engage with mall customers. Generally, beacons will be near the entrances to wake up installed applications and beacons will be scattered throughout the mall. Mall owners typically are unable to place their own beacons within stores, but also could place them above store entrances to better determine traffic within individual storefronts.


One of the solutions being touted is the ability to provide wayfinding services to customers, employees, etc. Wayfinding combines a Smartphone App with Beacons to provide the "blue dot" experience. Rather than giving a user a direction from "Location A to Location B" wayfinding solutions can use Beacons to provide a map from "Current Location to Location A" which simplifies the process. In order to make this successful, beacon density needs to be such that the current location can be determined wherever that customer is located. Given the relatively small footprint of beacon coverage, one per every thousand square feet is a good rough estimate. Like Wi-Fi, this will vary with wall construction and other obstructions. Exact placements in this situation can be somewhat flexible as generally a rough starting point is sufficient. If exact starting location is necessary then care must be taken to avoid scenarios where beacon signals bleed through walls, etc. Wayfinding capabilities vary greatly as indoor navigation logic or vector programing is difficult. Aruba Network's acquisition of Meridian Apps illustrated how valuable these capabilities are to wayfinding solution sets. Cisco's development partner Front Porch also has an innovative approach to interfacing with the customer and offers wayfinding capabilities. There are many additional solutions out there that use beacons in this way to provide wayfinding services.

Point of Interest or Targeted Engagement

Placement in these scenarios is such that the beacons are close to a specific location, item, etc. This deployment is common, especially in conjunction with the others. Examples may include suites in a football stadium, ticket box office or slot machines inside a casino, or the front lobby of a hotel. The goal of these locations is to either engage with a user of the system directly or to better understand how a specific area is used.

Retail Engagement

Retail has a unique challenge in that many placements are intended to cover a very small footprint, often in close proximity of others. These locations are often on shelving units and will almost always be battery powered. Fortunately they are typically easily accessible, but will need to be maintained over time. Starbucks, McDonald's, and Macy's ahve all recently been in the news touting beacon deployments.

Closing Thoughts

As this technology progresses and the ability to interact and truly engage with end users increases the possibilities are endless. Many features require development, however a number of good software development kits (SDKs) are being published to make this less painful. Beacons are one interesting way to location enable a three dimensional space to better understand how people use it and interact with their environments. I am currently engaged in piloting some beacon deployments for my customers and can say that it is an eye opening experience into the inner workings of some of these businesses. Vertical industry experts have a tremendous opportunity here working with technology companies to extract the maximum amount of value out of these solutions.

Quick Links

Part III: Building a Contextually Aware Network: Analytics (TBD-Mid Jan)
Part IV: Building a Contextually Aware Network: The Big Picture (TBD-Late Jan)