Companies in the early stages of planning digital signage networks often get focused on the hardware and software, and are often reminded and scolded that they also need to think about strategy and content. What often gets completely ignored is connectivity.
Internet access seems ubiquitous, and that there is no end of options, but the choices made around how networks are updated and managed need to factor in several considerations, or there can be problems with reliability, ease of management and budget.
Let’s look at the main options: satellite, mobile and terrestrial. Each has strengths and weaknesses.
The first thing to remember is that there are two types – one way and two-way.
One way can be highly efficient when it comes to cost and update speed. A batch of files can be uploaded to the “bird” and then using leased satellite time or broadband allowances, pushed out all at once to dozens, hundreds or thousands of sites. It’s called multicasting, and it is similar to conventional satellite broadcasting.
The hang-up is that it is not really using the Internet. To do anything more than push content, schedules and commands out to the end-point PCs, network operators need a back-channel. That’s a separate Internet connection – anything from dial-up to terrestrial high speed, to allow those endpoints to communicate status reports and logs back to the network operation desk.
So the efficiency and cost-savings of satellite are eroded by the need for a second, separate connection.
There are also substantial capital and labor costs involved in getting a satellite dish on a rooftop and running the cables and power down to the end-point. Then there’s that other issue: does the dish have line of sight to the satellite, or are there trees or buildings in the way?
The variant is two-way satellite, which is indeed an internet connection. The challenges with two-way are that the equipment is different from one-way (so you can’t re-use one-way gear), and more expensive, rate plans can be costly, and the speeds are often not as fast as terrestrial.
The advantage is more pronounced in countries like America, Canada and Australia, where remote locations for retailers and other businesses wanting to use digital signage may not have access to other types of internet.
3G and 4G networks have proliferated globally, making wireless broadband as fast or faster than wired, land-based access. The attraction of using mobile data networking is simple – it’s fast and coverage is broad. In theory, a simple USB-based connectivity stick is enough to get an end-point connecting to a network.
However, it’s often nowhere near that simple. Anyone with a mobile phone will confirm coverage/reception is not predictable even within a few metres inside a building. Reception may be perfect, but it may be non-existent, or cycle maddeningly between the two.
To do it right likely means using extra equipment – like mobile wireless routers with antennae – to ensure the signal is sufficiently strong and stable. That’s more capital cost and more hardware to manage day to day.
Costs can vary, and one of the biggest variables is how much data you want to move and when you want to move it. If you have big media files and they will need to move in the middle of the day, your data transfer tariffs (in other words, your bills) will be higher. If you can schedule and move content and log files around in the middle of the night, when mobile networks are not busy, it will be less costly.
Here’s an important acronym to remember: M2M. Spelled out, that’s Machine To Machine, a line of business for mobile carriers aimed at companies that don’t use voice or text and just need to communicate to and from things like vending machines and remote pumping stations. Your network MAY be well-suited to M2M, which will cost less than regular consumer or business plans.
Many or most digital signage networks work off cable or DSL accounts. Wired networks are not infallible, but they are generally more solid than mobile and offer the low-cost connectivity many or most networks need.
There aren’t that many challenges with land-based internet, but what can cause stumbles are usually apparent at the planning and deployment stages. Shopping malls and events centres that should, logically, have cable wiring into the facility may not – and there are vast expenses of paved parking lot between the pole or data box at the street, and the actual building.
With DSL, things like the distance from central switching equipment for that area might mean connectivity might be spotty or terrible because that equipment is too far away. In large deployments, it is likely a network will need a blend of cable and DSL to get all the end-points connected.
Most businesses looking at digital signage already have internet into their building or buildings. So why not use that?
A couple of reasons:
1 – IT probably won’t let you, because of perceived network security risks;
2 – Big files sent through a day could slow the local or wide area network, jamming up everything from emails to sales order processing.
The LAN is definitely the cheapest and easiest option in many cases, but your network/IT Team will not welcome your ideas with open arms. Get them invalid and informed early.
Think and plan for connectivity at the start of the process. You’ll need to list your intended locations, understand the types and sizes of files to run on the network, the frequency of updates, the amount of localization (different content site by site), when updates need to be done (midday or overnight?), what the budget will bear and what IT will allow.
Get all that understood early, and a big, important box will probably be ticked on the checklist for successfully planning your network.
Further reading: Efficient Network Management for Digital Signage