Beacon networks

Beacon networks

Beacons emit short radio waves. Bluetooth-enabled smartphones can receive text, audio, and video data that beacons can transmit. The early version of beacon networks consisted of simple unidirectional radio beacons that emitted a continuous signal to help navigate ships and aircraft.

The technology evolution

In the 1980s and 1990s, GPS technology development led to the creation of satellite-based beacon networks. These networks provided highly accurate location data. The military initially used the networks, but they were soon adopted for civilian applications such as navigation systems and location-based services.

Beacon networks again evolved with the advent of Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology in the early 2010s. BLE beacons are small, low-cost devices that use Bluetooth radio signals to transmit information to near devices such as smartphones and tablets. These networks are now widely used for indoor navigation, asset tracking, and proximity-based marketing. 

Impact of 5-G 

The introduction of 5G and the Internet of things (IoT) has further enhanced the capability of these networks. The technologies allow for real-time tracking and monitoring of assets. 5-G-enabled beacons track customer behavior and preferences within retail stores. A store can now offer personalized promotions and recommendations to customers based on their interests and shopping history. Stores can use the data to optimize store layouts and product placement.

In manufacturing facilities, beacon networks can track inventory and equipment in real time. With 5-G connectivity, data is transmitted instantly and analyzed in real time, enabling businesses to make informed decisions about production processes. All this is leading to improvement in efficiency and reduction of downtime.

Yet another use case of beacon networks is in smart buildings. These monitor occupancy and adjust lighting, heating, and cooling, reducing energy consumption and improving comfort. Fast, reliable, and real-time data helps in improving decision-making quality. Other use cases of 5-G-enabled beacon networks are emerging in smart transportation, healthcare, and other sectors where real-time data can enhance decision quality.

The use case

A few years back, I interviewed a Founder of a European beacon network company. The global beacon market was seeing exponential growth. Bluetooth beacon shipments were growing at 307.2 percent in 2015-2020. Eighty thousand units were shipped in 2015. This number was projected to reach 88.29 million by 2020. (Technavio) Much of this growth would come from non-retail market use cases.

For a few years, iBeacons, made by Apple, were almost the only game in town. Google took a little while to join the race. But now they have joined the bandwagon with their Eddystone beacons. Microsoft, too, now has its brand of beacons. However, the lion's share of the beacon market continues with Apple. But Google is rapidly catching up. Other players are also joining in with their beacon products. 

The limitation of the technology, then, lies in its limited range. Its effective range is 50 meters. Long-range location beacons can communicate up to 200 meters distance. As demand for longer-distance broadcasting and communication emerges, I think this limitation will soon be overcome. 

With the rising popularity of these devices, the manufacture of hardware has become commoditized. China had emerged as a major manufacturer. The cost of a base version of a beacon has dropped to as low as $10. AA batteries power most beacons. They can also be energized through a USB port or directly connected to a power source. Power consumption is very low. A set of four batteries could keep a beacon energized for up to four years.

Broadcast and communication messages on the beacon network can be encrypted and secured from hacking. Beacon firmware developers can further program an extra layer of security. One such firmware developer startup was Onyx Beacon. It was based out of Romania. The company has since discontinued its production.

I spoke to the startup's communication head Doru Supeala and got an overview of the solutions offered by them. Onyx Beacon beacon solutions can be used on all brands ibeacon, Eddystone, and others. Here below are some of the key features of the Onyx Beacon firmware:

  1. Encryption is based on a combination of AES – 128 (Advanced Encryption Standard with a block size of 128 bits) and MAC (Message Authentication Code). MAC enables message authentication.
  2. The firmware can also operate on the open format of Google Eddystone beacons. A specific URL can be beamed onto a smartphone with the help of an Eddystone beacon. The URL can be opened on an Android phone using Google Chrome.
  3. Content can be managed with a cloud-based CMS. The CMS application can be integrated with a company's CRM through an application interface. The CMS helps manage multiple beacons and track customer movement, frequency, and time a visitor spends in a location.
  4. Visitor data can be analyzed. It can be used to build customer-specific marketing campaigns and improve customer outreach. 

Onyx Beacon beacon technology can be deployed for asset tracking and real-time location services, proximity marketing, customized communication to bank staff and visitors, smart public transportation solutions, participant engagement and event analytics, interactive learning solutions, etc. 

Emerging competitive landscape 

Rising demand for this technology has led to increased competition. The number of service providers is increasing. The technology, though, is still new. The appreciation for this technology is still emerging. The success of these IoT tech ventures will depend on the quality of customer outreach and service support.

Onyx Beacon startups were building an extensive partner ecosystem spread in different locations in Europe and other parts of the world. They were doing all their development work out of Romania. In the future, they will probably need to look closer at their growth and development models and compare them with other emerging multinational startups. 

Development and service offerings can be cloned to customer location countries. It will help contain costs, fight rising protectionist tendencies worldwide, and offer customer and country-specific services. The world of beacon networks has moved forward since this use case was written down.

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