Why Wi-Fi may be a possible substitute for RFID

Wi-Fi may be a cheaper alternative to RFID

Given that many companies already have Wi-Fi networks, Wi-Fi Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) may be a cheaper alternative to some more expensive radio frequency identification (RFID) technology applications, according to one analyst.

That's because businesses have already made the partial investment with Wi-Fi access points that have been previously installed and paid for, said Stan Schatt, vice-president and research director of Oyster Bay, New York-based ABI Research.

And, although the operation would require the deployment of some additional points to reap full coverage, Schatt said that could be still be accomplished at a reasonable price given that the Wi-Fi RTLS standard is an open platform. "RFID readers are proprietary and very, very expensive," he said.

But cost savings isn't the sole benefit. Using Wi-Fi RTLS to manage inventory, for instance, means being able to incorporate that component into the overall network infrastructure, said Schatt. "Instead of having a separate network, you have one single network that you're managing and it's a much more efficient that way."

The benefits can then be extended from inventory to the security access system as well, he added.

But Schatt cautions that Wi-Fi RTLS doesn't lend itself well to all applications as would proprietary RFID. In particular, tracking inventory in an outdoor environment like a port where individual packages as opposed to palettes might be involved would present accuracy issues.

"You're really concerned with getting accuracy within one foot. You can't get within one foot of Wi-Fi RTLS," he said, adding that the technology works by triangulating a location using the closest access point.

Another imperfect application of Wi-Fi RTLS is in wide-open spaces that present a lot of interference like the outdoors or in large warehouses in which the signal would bounce of walls and other objects, said Schatt.

The accuracy of Wi-Fi RTLS technology may improve down the road, but he said that "will be quite a while."

However, he does see Wi-Fi RTLS has being very useful in certain verticals like healthcare. "If you've got a piece of medical equipment, just knowing it's on the third floor in such and such department is pretty much what you need to know," he said.

Schatt said he thinks the technology will catch on among early adopters like healthcare and retail, just as the industry witnessed a similar adoption pattern of Wi-Fi in general. "Eventually it will become a horizontal application," he said.

Major equipment vendors, he added, are beginning to offer Wi-Fi RTLS as a "regular part of their offerings."

But the adoption of Wi-Fi RTLS will be around "green fields", or companies facing the decision of which technology to purchase, said Schatt. Companies with an established proprietary RFID system that's working well won't want to ditch the infrastructure for another. Those businesses with no prior system in place and that have a Wi-Fi network might consider deploying the additional access points required for RTLS.

If faced with the decision, Schatt said IT professionals would likely prefer to take the Wi-Fi RTLS route because the proprietary platform is a locked-in expense from a single source provider.

The issue with having varied technologies, however, is that proprietary RFID and Wi-Fi RTLS technology won't integrate, said Schatt.

While Wi-Fi RTLS has gained popularity in healthcare and fleet management, it still remains a niche application that depends on a business having deployed high-end wireless local area network (WLAN) enterprise equipment, said Gemma Tedesco, Senior Analyst with research firm In-Stat.

"Not that many businesses have full wireless local area networks deployments of high-end access points," she said.

In addition, the accuracy of location tracking technology "varies", cautioned Tedesco.

Based on the lukewarm response to research reports issued last year by In-Stat on the topic of Wi-Fi RTLS, the firm inferred the market probably holds limited potential.

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Kathleen Lau

ComputerWorld Canada
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