Comment: Melting Wi-Fi across Britain‘s high streets


The rise of new technology, the economic downturn and the death of the high street has put pressure on the retail industry in the last five years. Not only are consumer‘s pockets tighter, but shoppers have changed their buying behaviours and become significantly more digitally-savvy. As a result, retailers have gone head-to-head against each other to fight for customers, using technology as their ally.

Retailers such as Marks & Spencers, Tesco and Nike are currently pushing the boundaries of tech innovation by deploying revolutionary interactive counters and touchscreen kiosks, to provide the ultimate shopping experience. Additionally, retailers have invested in digital signage advertising, tablets, mobile apps and more recently, bespoke promotions via Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology as well as online promotions which require an internet connection to get access to offers. Nowadays, consumers expect wireless in stores to browse and compare offers on their smartphones.

However, many retailers are still using outdated wireless infrastructure which may not be able to cope with the new demands placed on it. According to eMarketer , there will be 30.9 million smartphone users in the UK throughout 2013, meaning that competition to get a fixed signal on wireless networks will become even fiercer, putting evermore pressure on wireless networks.

According to Google 84 per cent of mobile shoppers use their phones to help them shop in physical stores every day. However, for the most part, browsing happens via 3G by default, which itself has limitations, such as data restrictions and poor in-store signal. This ultimately prevents customers from getting online and hinders opportunities for retailers to engage with shoppers. With that in mind, Wi-Fi appears to be the most attractive route for browsing, but with an anticipated explosion of activity across retailers‘ wireless network; there could be problems with both security and downtime.

Whilst retailers are putting the customers at the heart of their business by feeding their digital appetites, a storm is brewing on the wireless network. WLANs are often the backbone that supports the influx of mobile devices in-store. However, retailers are now providing shop floor workers with tablets to improve productivity, who are using mobile devices for operations such as checking product availability. Whilst this boosts operations, this activity is in addition to the many customers latching on to the WLAN.

Wireless often seems like a miracle for mobile users who can connect to the web on-the-go, but old WLANs were never designed to cope with such intense levels of activity across the network.

For example, it would only take four HD Youtube videos to overwhelm the average wireless access point, based on a throughput capacity per access point of 33mbps. Whilst this might currently be sufficient enough for a small environment, it would not fit the needs of large retailers or shopping malls, which may use video content to lure customers in to their stores – or even have shoppers watching videos whilst waiting in line. Consequently, as a result of this spike in usage, there could be a Wi-Fi meltdown, leaving retailers and their customers unable to get online – or worse, fail to process payments as handheld payment terminals fail to connect.

As mobile devices become more sophisticated, and retailers begin to invest in future technologies for in-store use, such as indoor-location apps, they must also seek solutions that can prepare for an influx of activity on their network.

Retailers come in all different shapes and sizes – as does WLAN. In order to avoid the meltdown of Wi-Fi access points, retailers must plan ahead for better usage and take the stats seriously. Tools are available to map out Wi-Fi cover across stores and predict capacity and retailers should make sure they have enough capa