WiFi networks and crowdsourcing an IT strategy

In a recent survey 1 in 3 British workers say they rely on WiFi to do their jobs effectively, and 61% of those believe their home WiFi to be better than their workplace WiFi. That survey of 2,004 randomly selected British wireless-reliant UK workers aged 18+ was commissioned by Aerohive Networks – a US based maker of premium business grade WiFi equipment. Their report contains a number of observations on productivity problems in the workplace, with unreliable connectivity considered the most disruptive, power cuts as second, and ‘wireless temporarily down’ as third. Aerohive report that “Up to 40% have missed deadlines and opportunities at work due to poor [wireless] connectivity”. This negative experience of WiFi in the workplace relative to the home supports the widely held view that WiFi use in the workplace is led by employees, not by IT department strategists. From this report one might infer that WiFi connectivity in the workplace is behind the expectations and needs of some employees to work as productively as they would like.

Modern mobile working practices are more typical in younger people. It is probably significant that they have a more technologically aware mind-set, along with higher expectations of their working environment developed in technologically rich educational environments. Recently we upgraded WiFi in some student accommodation. While investigating issues with networks, two students in a common area both using WiFi were asked if they also used a wired connection. Only one of the two did, even though a laptop with a port for a wired connection was being used by the one that only used WiFi. Obviously this is a vanishingly small sample, but this scenario is typical, and there are two important points to draw from it. Firstly, both students were spending some time working in a communal area using WiFi, but that was their choice, not a requirement. Secondly, one did not even take the trouble to use a wired connection when it was available and provided a better service – the reason we were there. Mobility is at least in part about a more social and collaborative style of working. It allows people to take what they are doing with them. They are controlling the technology rather than the technology controlling them. In science fiction movies nothing is ever plugged in, everything is wireless because that is how we like to see ourselves, with freedom to move and in control of powerful technology. In problem scenarios in science fiction technology takes control, even if it is wielded by other people. Wireless connectivity then is an essential enabler of expectations in working practices, and currently wireless connectivity is dominated by WiFi.

A recent webinar by LogMeIn reported on their survey of almost 1400 IT and non-IT professionals globally concerning modern trends in IT that could be collectively described as crowdsourcing an IT strategy. They simplify their findings into four macro-IT trends:

Firstly – use of personal devices for business; the so called bring your own device (BYOD) trend. Employees chose the technology and IT departments provided WiFi connectivity. This was the start of significant employee contributions to the IT strategy, i.e. crowdsourcing the IT strategy.

Secondly – an empowered, connected, and mobile workforce. These employees (who as discussed above are generally younger) expect mobility and ubiquitous wireless connectivity. This group are probably the strongest drivers of WiFi expectations in the Aerohive Networks survey above.

Thirdly – applications sourced and managed by employees; the so called bring your own application (BYOA) trend. Employees report they do not always feel the need to seek the approval of the IT department, particularly to address problems localised to their small groups and themselves. This has resulted in a strong move away from enterprise grade software to the cloud ‘app’ based approach (cloud based processing and storage) which has perceived advantages described in terms like convenience, ease of use, agility, speed, less hassle, and flexibility. However, this piecemeal approach has no overarching strategy and little or no appreciation of broader consequences.

Fourthly – business data is increasingly in the cloud. A major advantage of the cloud is location anonymity, but that can also be a concern for some data.

IT professionals see the consequence of these four macro trends as a less secure and controlled IT world, with 42% expecting this trend to continue, and 35% expecting it to remain at about the same level. The main concern of 54% of IT professionals is a lack of security of business data in the cloud. The survey also indicated that 29% of IT departments monitor and modulate use of apps, accepting its inevitability but trying to make use of its advantages; 39% broadly ignore it, not yet knowing how to react; and 30% are actively suppressing use of apps not sanctioned by the IT department. This last reaction is despite strong anecdotal evidence that employee productivity is improved by these four trends.

We can see from these two surveys that IT strategies in the workplace are now partially emerging from employee decisions. At this time no coherent response has been established among IT professionals to crowdsourcing of IT strategy. However it is accepted that a strong WiFi network is a key enabling technology for the modern mobile working practices expected by an empowered, connected, and mobile workforce. Likely the way forward will be found in technologies being developed to modulate these trends so as to gain the best from them while minimising problems. Certainly, while it still possible the old arrangement of IT departments totally controlling IT use and strategy in the workplace are looking increasingly outdated and likely to hold back productivity.

‘Bring your own access’ will accelerate the trend for IT strategy crowdsourcing. Personally controlled mobile Internet connectivity can circumvent corporate Internet connectivity, so IT departments will then be unaware of the data moving in and out of the business. As data prices fall, coverage and speeds improve, and employees become more technologically enabled, this trend will accelerate.

Myrmidon Access Points

To make affordable WLANs capable of handling the large numbers of connections and high throughput most of us anticipate, I would like two classes of access point. The smart access points that we already have would work with many more much simpler and therefore much cheaper myrmidon access points that make most of the connections and shift most of the data. These two classes of access point must occupy the same space so that the advantages of each are always available.
To be cheap enough to be deployed in large numbers myrmidons must be very simple, specialising only in high numbers of connections and / or high throughput. Ideally they should also be small and use little power, but importantly they should require no individual human configuration or attention. As they need to coexist in the same space as smart Wi-Fi based APs they would be advantaged in using out-of-band wireless technologies like 802.11ad / WirelessHD / WiGig, DASH7, Zigbee, and Li-Fi. The sophistication they need but lack is delegated to specialised proximate controller devices. Each controller will orchestrate the configuration and behaviour of large numbers of myrmidons according to localised conditions and usage patterns, and in anticipation of events.
Right now I would like to be installing myrmidons. Desks are an obvious place, but the lower price of this capability enables it to be installed in many more locations. For example, it would be much more affordable to fit out large venue halls, sports stadiums, and outdoor locations such as car parks and playgrounds. It would also help low margin businesses such as mainstream hotels and high street shops to offer a better wireless connectivity experience. As the internet-of-things, low cost robotics, WPANs, BANs, wearables, and wireless sensors become more common so we will need this kind of WLAN.

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Update

This Wilocity chips sounds like a potential candidate to enable the client side connection to myrmidons

Smartphones Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi roaming

On 2013-09-24 there were 2449 smartphones listed by the Wi-Fi Alliance as Wi-Fi Certified

72 were listed as 5G Wi-Fi enabled i.e. 802.11ac

63 were listed as Passpoint Certified i.e. 802.11u

5G Wi-Fi is important primarily because its speed and range improvements in the less congested 5 GHz frequencies lead to a better experience. More 5G Wi-Fi networks need to be deployed.

Passpoint (Hotspot 2.0) is important because it enables ‘Wi-Fi roaming’. This automates login to diverse Wi-Fi networks. The effect is generally a faster connection than a mobile carrier can provide because of the rapid growth in mobile data usage. As a result it is sometimes called ‘mobile carrier offloading’ or ‘Wi-Fi offloading’.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance are promoting Wi-Fi roaming in their Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) project.