Location, Location, Location

By Naomi Graychase

October 29, 2007

Ekahau and Polycom partner to bring real-time locator services to Wi-Fi phones.

Ekahau announced last week that it has formed a new partnership with Polycom to bring its Real Time Location System (RTLS) to Polycom’s SpectraLink 8000 Series handsets. The location-enhanced Wi-Fi phones are expected to bring greater levels of safety, increased workflow, and better asset management to enterprises utilizing the new phones.

The phones work by incorporating Ekahau’s Wi-Fi tags into Polycom’s SpectraLink Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) phones. The tags, which Ekahau also markets independently, are about the size of a matchbook and enable location tracking to within a few meters of whoever (or whatever) is wearing the tag.

“The tag communicates through the Wi-Fi network to the server and calculates location,” says Tuomo Rutanen. “We are able to use pretty much any brand of 802.11 network and track location using signal strength readings from those access points. Think of it like an overlay application, like voice, on existing networks.”

The RTLS-enabled SpectraLink 8000 Series Wi-Fi handsets work with the Ekahau Positioning Engine (EPE) server software.

“We’ve converged the two technologies,” says Rutanen. “We’ve taken a little Ekahau software inside the SpectraLink phones that emulates software in our tags.”

The EPE also enables users to receive and respond to work-flow messaging based on their location.

“These phones can receive text messages, like a cell phone, over Wi-Fi. So, what we can do is, based on your location, send location-specific information via text message. For example, if a worker in a factory goes to a certain place to do a certain task and by law, he or she must be notified that they must be wearing goggles, a mask, a hard hat, etc., now, it can be done based on automated messaging,” explains Rutanen.

Paging Dr. Grey

Key markets for the phones include hospitals, public safety, manufacturing, mines, and retail floors.  

“Health care is a very big sector for Ekahau, but we’re also building out our focus in other areas, such as manufacturing, mining, and retail,” says Rutanen. “The phones are pretty widely used in retail, at big box stores...SpectraLink over Wi-Fi opens up our opportunities to license our location technology to these types of companies. It makes it possible to page the closest associate to a customer looking to get help.”

In some cases, particularly in the medical field, the cost savings of using Ekahau’s RTLS tags to manage assets have fully funded Wi-Fi networks.

“Health care is the leading market segment for 802.11,” says Rutanen. “We have had a couple of instances where the just IT staff can’t quantify ROI for the expense [of deploying a WLAN]. But, when they use location tracking to manage assets, they are able to come up with numbers to produce an ROI that works.

“If you walk into any hospital, it’s total chaos. Everything is on wheels: vital signs, monitors, defibrillators, crash carts, etc. Things get pushed off into corners and can’t be found, so you have an underutilization of assets in hospitals. In fact, 40-50% of the asset base is typically under utilized. Hospitals overbuy and things are scattered all over. You buy a back up for when you lose the first one. By using our tags, capital purchasing can be reduced considerably. Lots of hospitals also go to rental companies to rent more equipment to replace what they can’t find. We can eliminate the need for rentals with tagging.”

Averting disaster

The RTLS-enabled Wi-Fi phones also have significant implications in rare, but terrible, emergency response situations including mine cave-ins and campus shootings.

“We can shorten response time by giving more information about where the incident is, so we know where to go,” says Rutanen. “If miners underground are carrying them, we can coordinate work efforts. And, in an instance where a cave-in happens, the rescue people know a snapshot of the entire mine. They are putting access points into mines. Obviously, if a mine caves in, the network will probably fall apart, but you still have a snapshot, from the time of the cave-in, of locations.

“That also means that, for safety, if you have a large campus and there’s an incident--someone goes nuts--if you press a couple of keys, that can initiate an emergency call. So, the Ekahau system can send messages out to security to say, ‘Someone in room 301 has pressed the panic button on the phone.’”

The 411 on 911

The advent of RTLS-enabled phones is also good news for VoWi-Fi purveyors because it helps to clear one major obstacle that has been stopping municipalities from getting on board: a lack of 911 call location.

“The FCC has mandated that you be able to locate cell phones when you dial 911,” says Rutanen. “But the companies are not all really complying yet. When you distill down to VoWi-Fi phones, the are no mandates, but we know that city institutions, governmental entities, and schools have been reluctant to adopt these types of wireless phones because of lack of knowledge of location in case of emergency calls. So, this is also helping to open up the market for VoWi-Fi phones because now you have a location if someone dials 911.”

List price for the Ekahau-enabled SpectraLink phones from Polycom is $595-675.

Originally published on .

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