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.

The balance of wired and wireless

Recently I installed a 4G LTE router in a site where there is a poor wired Internet service with no plans for improvement, but a choice of proximate 4G LTE base stations. The resulting wireless throughput is better, the service more reliable, and the prospect of further improvements immanent – partly because of the increasing competition between the wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) offering 4G. Apparently the wired infrastructure is not economically viable to upgrade according to its ISP. This is surprising statement given that the area is very densely populated with consumers and wired infrastructure. Perhaps what they mean is not enough disgruntled customers are leaving for 4G to justify spend on upgrading their service yet. This is not the first area I have come across with that attitude by an ISP. The first time I was told this was also in a build-up area, but it had fewer consumers and more businesses that are probably paying for leased lines anyway, so it was easier to see why there. Anyway, this attitude made me wonder where it is economically viable to put in at least fibre to the cabinet. Obviously the WISP base stations that serve this recent site need to aggregate a lot of data, and at least one of them has no wireless carrier antennas, so I suspect it is using fibre for backhaul. I think this is a case where wired infrastructure can more easily make money. It has the throughput advantage (at the moment) that can justify the cost of digging in a heavily developed area with strong property laws. I expect ISPs to continue to cede customers to WISPs and wired infrastructure to further retrench and focus on highly aggregated throughput.

Now suppose that some clever researcher finds some scrap of information intrinsic in electromagnetic radiation that allows distinct transceivers to be identified, or even just groups of them. This would make a dramatic difference to wireless communication because spectrum becomes less contended. In fact something like that has already been announced in the shape of pCells. I hope for and expect more innovations of this kind. When they arrive they will have a profound effect on wireless communication and wires will retrench further.