A Revolution in Network Deployment
We live in a wireless world. Computers, the formerly beige behemoths tethered to a wall outlet and network cable drop, have evolved to the point where most users have a small laptop that allows them to roam freely. Most recently, we have seen the birth of the age of the tablet, heralded by the emergence of the Apple iPad, allowing even more freedom of interaction and communication. Keyboards, mice, game controllers, home phones — even children’s toys — are now offering wireless controls and communication. I recently purchased a vacuum with a wireless on/off switch. Wireless is literally everywhere. We have heard “wireless” used as a catch-all phrase associated with technology designed to provide improved performance and ease of use, but have these advances in wireless technology that allow other devices to be used so effectively really given us tools we can use with digital signage?
Others in this magazine will address satellite distribution. Here we’ll look at cellular and how we’ve gotten to where we are today. We have heard the siren’s song of wireless many times before, with promises of wireless signal distribution for video, wireless computer networks, and cellular data connections promising to revolutionize how we deploy digital signage hardware and content. Until recently, most experts would agree that these wireless technologies, while looking great at manufacturer demos, ultimately underperform in the real world. Why did they fail? It was not a simple answer. Early wireless video systems, like early Wi-Fi, offered very limited range, limited performance, and in the real world rarely worked as promised. Range was limited, there were frequently delays in video, and interference abounded, causing picture failures and artifacting. This was compounded by high initial costs due to small production runs. It was a great concept to be sure — promising no more wiring or video cabling from media players to displays.
This idea has spawned a whole new product segment of media players embedded in displays. While it didn’t work well for early adopters, ultimately it has been driven by consumer demand and the results are undeniable. Manufacturers are finding wireless communication methods such as Bluetooth, which can be successfully used over traditional wireless transmission. In fact, companies like Peerless (a display mount company making a successful video product — who would have thought?) are now demonstrating high-quality digital wireless video streaming products that actually function incredibly well. This provides a powerful tool in distributing video and reducing installation labor, but it’s not the only new thing in a network deployment “toolbox” that is worthy of notice.
The concept of wireless networking is hardly new. The idea of a computer network that is completely wireless has been around for over ten years, but just like wireless video, its capabilities have grown in recent years. New antenna and signal processing techniques have improved speed and range, as well as reliability to the point where it is not something to be summarily ignored for a digital signage deployment. In addition, we have seen a serious maturation of cellular data connections. They have improved in both speed and cost, to the point where they can be deployed much more easily. Consider the proliferation of the iPhone and other smartphones, not just among the business users, but all users. Each one is equipped with a relatively high-speed data connection. The performance has increased, not quite to the speeds afforded by a hardwired DSL or cable connection, but still more than sufficient with 3G and new 4G technology. Costs have also reduced drastically, getting down into the $50/month range, providing a service that can be considered seriously for the first time. Both of these technology improvements help combat one of the serious issues facing any digital signage network installer: interfacing with the existing network and, more importantly, the IT department.
Historically, not all IT departments have been eager to embrace digital signage. However, if you look at it from their point of view, our digital signage systems are definitely a point of contention. We require open ports, firewall permissions, and if they have a domain type network or Active Directory, each player needs to be joined to it. Add to this that most IT departments have requirements about OS, updates, antivirus software, not to mention fitting all that into the player, and that’s before bandwidth is even discussed. Media rich digital signage requires a considerable overhead, and network bandwidth was not designed around accommodating our needs. In most corporate campuses or retail stores, critical applications such as videoconferencing or POS services live in that IT space already, and those cannot be compromised.
So how does wireless provide a way to keep the peace with your friendly neighborhood network admin person? One solution: Completely bypass his or her network in its entirety. (On a simpler level, wireless can be useful for adding a media player in a location that you simply can’t reach by wire.) Just imagine building your own network that is not in any way attached to existing corporate resources, and where you do not need a degree in network engineering to get the job done. Modern wireless finally provides a way to do that in a meaningful fashion. So instead of endless IT planning meetings and fighting about the needed settings to deploy digital signage on an existing network, a relatively inexpensive wireless access point and maybe a repeater or two can bring forth your own wireless network to call home. And if the budget allows it, and reception is available, you could deploy cellular modems for each media player, eliminating even the need for an internet connection at the site. As an added benefit you have the network “800 pound gorilla” of an AT&T or Verizon backing your infrastructure and providing support — if you design the system right.
Of course, with all the good, there has to be some downside. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch, right? Utilizing wireless technology will often have a few hidden hurdles that will not be apparent to a novice, so make sure you do your homework. If you don’t design a robust system that avoids unnecessary bandwidth, wireless can cost more. While wireless cellular plans and hardware have been getting cheaper, traditional hardwired technology has gained similar ground, reducing its cost as well.
Service costs for cellular may be reaching affordable status, but they can still cost enough to give pause. You need to plan for increases in bandwidth needs down the road. Bulk discounts may be negotiable, but don’t count on them. Always perform a full cost analysis before making a commitment. Most cellular systems will require a contract, just like a cell phone, to reduce the modem cost.
Reliability is also another critical concern. As anyone with a cell phone can tell you, reception can frequently make people hurl their phones across the room in frustration. So always ensure you have solid reception in each and every player location. This holds true for Wi-Fi, as well. Proper design is required to make sure you get sufficient speed and signal strength everywhere you need it. Streaming-based applications will require constant throughput, and a download-based playback (store and forward) may be able to cope with occasional downtimes, so consider your application before specifying wireless. These are dragons we can slay, as long as we are prepared to fight them.
In short, we live in a new wireless world where technology has matured, speeds are usable, costs are understandable, and products are readily available. Some IT departments can become a veritable minefield for the digital signage installer, and, in these cases, any way to install a system faster and more efficiently is worth its weight in reduced expenses and frustration. Wireless distribution of video can offer a valuable benefit in replacing costly signal distribution and installation. Wireless, combined with media players small enough to be installed at or inside the display, can provide a true revolution in the way we consider network deployment. Anyone planning to build a digital signage network would be well off to consider an in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of a wireless or cellular solution.
Alan Brawn (alan@BrawnConsulting.com) and Jonathan Brawn (email@example.com) are principals of Brawn Consulting LLC an audio visual and IT consulting, educational development, and market intelligence firm with national exposure to major manufacturers, distributors, and integrators in the industry.