Why integrate digital signage through a network? Today, the vast majority of digital signage deployments are networked. The advantages of a networked digital signage system are far greater than simply the cost savings; such systems also add value by their ability to update content, nearly in real time, and increase its relevance to the viewing audience. The days of updating signs by flash drives and other manual, non-networked approaches have simply become a thing of the past.
"Having a network means you'll always have the highest level of control on your digital signage deployments, no matter how big those deployments might be. Whether the display is next door or on the other side of the world, you'll know what's going on at any given point in time," said Simon Wilson, CEO of Scotts Valley, Calif.-based MediaTile, a provider of cellular digital signage.
A network enables digital displays to send and receive data to and from a central point of control, typically managed by the network operator or administrator. Most networks today, by and large, are Internet Protocol-based, or IP-based, networks — meaning that each display is given its own unique IP address and uses the Internet as its primary means of communication.
Unfortunately, traditional IP networks, such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi and satellite networks, have limitations. Wi-Fi and Ethernet networks require infrastructure and tech support. Other problems include high cost and lack of convenience.
For example, it's not feasible or always even possible to install Ethernet or Wi- Fi in some locations, such as an outdoor digital billboard; a vendor's endcap at a wholesale store where that vendor, typically the "brand," has absolutely no access to the retailer's in-store network; a manufacturing facility that has to be recabled; a temporary display booth at a convention or in a shuttle bus, taxi or other mobile environment.
Hardwired Ethernet networks, Wi-Fi networks and, in some cases, satellite networks, however, do provide the benefit of a persistent, typically higher-bandwidth connection. This enables digital displays to stream content to displays, thus providing "live" video capabilities. With the advent of 4G networks, bandwidth on cellular-based networks is no longer a limitation and provides equal, if not greater, bandwidth than today's LAN or Wi-Fi networks.
"4G networks represent a new evolution in cellular and wireless networks," said Mike Foster, CMO and co-founder of MediaTile. "4G networks essentially deliver the equivalent bandwidth of 5 T-1 lines, with absolutely no on-site network infrastructure, setup or ongoing maintenance. Today, you can grab the equivalent of 5 Mbps, right out of the air, without any of the costs or complexities of traditional networking."
Having an on-site network infrastructure can cause a lot of headaches. Operations likely will be disrupted in some form as cable is laid and furniture or equipment is repositioned to facilitate the installation. The network will have to be tested, software must be loaded and once it's activated, the network will have to be configured to the devices it is supporting. And the attention to these networks doesn't stop with installation; ongoing support and management also is required, costing time, manpower and the allocation of what are typically scarce IT resources.
That's where a cellular-based network comes in.
Cellular networks, also known as wireless broadband, data services or simply 3G/4G networks, have become much more ubiquitous in the market over the past several years. Cellular data services are provided by carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and TELUS (in Canada) and deliver affordable, reliable and secure broadband Internet access virtually everywhere.
Over the past several years, every major carrier has created an M2M (machine-to-machine) division to facilitate the adoption of 3G and 4G networks into embedded computing systems. The focus of these M2M organizations is to work with businesses who integrate modems directly into devices such as digital signs, security systems, smart meters and other "machines" which are controlled by a back-end application which also is considered a "machine."
Many industry analysts are now predicting that M2M is a high-growth area for many of the carriers, as it represents a new and previously untapped market for them. According to a recent press release and report by Rockville, Md.-based market research firm Pyramid Research, "The potential size of the cellular M2M market is enormous, providing operators with a sizeable, long-term growth opportunity. We forecast that the volume of cellular M2M subscriptions will increase almost fourfold between 2010 and 2016, from 72m to 282m."
Technology research firm Yankee Group, based in Rockville, Md., said, "After years of anticipation, the machine-to-machine (M2M) era has finally arrived. A new Yankee Group forecast predicts enterprise cellular M2M connections worldwide will surge from 81.8 million in 2011 to nearly 217.5 million in 2015."
"Today's ubiquitous availability of 3G networks, combined with the emergence and accelerated pace of 4G network accessibility, has made cellular connectivity a viable option for virtually any type of digital signage deployment," Wilson said. "As access has increased, prices have come down, making affordability and bandwidth of this network choice no longer a factor."
Chuck Gose, a former internal communications manager for United Kingdom-based Rolls-Royce Corp., a deployer of a cellular-based digital signage network, said Rolls-Royce is an example of a company that got fed up with the extra baggage that Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks bring to the table.
"The cellular-broadband technology ... ended up at one-third of the cost of a traditional hardwired installation, which would have cost about $500,000 to $600,000," Gose said. "From the corporate communicator's chair, it's a natural fit. Using MediaTile's (cellular-based) technology not only saved us money by not needing additional IT infrastructure and installation, but it reduces the challenges of managing content, thanks to the user-friendly broadcast portal."
Cellular networking can be deployed in a number of configurations. A data services modem, for example, can be used to connect each media player directly to the cellular network, while a cell-to-Wi-Fi device can be used to create a virtual Wi-Fi access point for up to five media players equipped with Wi-Fi adapters, each of which drives an individual display. This is particularly desirable in situations where a group of displays are in close proximity, and financially advantageous in that only a single monthly cellular data service fee is required.
Read more about cellular digital signage.
(Excerpted from the recently published DigitalSignageToday guide, "3G/4G Cellular-Based Digital Signage." To read more, download the free publication.)