Buying beacons: 88 questions so you don’t #fail

The Localz crew have been involved in over a dozen large scale, enterprise oriented, beacon deployments on three different continents.  We’ve utilised beacons from numerous manufacturers. Some work great, some could be improved and some failed dismally which left a bad impression of the technology and its capabilities.  Fortunately, the technology continues to advance rapidly. Quality is generally improving and the number of hardware suppliers vying for your business has rapidly expanded to more than 30 providers making Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons including those supporting iBeacon and Eddystone.

It can be quite challenging when buying beacons to evaluate and distinguish between beacon providers, particularly when considering a production roll out to tens or even thousands of locations.  Armed with some of the most diverse and advanced experiences formed from working with enterprise clients across the globe, we’ve identified a framework of considerations for companies seeking guidance on beacon procurement request for proposal (RFP) and request for quotation (RFQ).

Hand filling out checklist on clipboard with a pen

13 topics to consider

There is quite a lot to digest here, so we’ve broken it up into 13 different topic areas to make it a little easier:

  1. Solution overview
  2. Credentials
  3. Core methodologies
  4. Hardware
  5. Protocols
  6. Configuration
  7. Security controls
  8. Smartphone SDK
  9. Management platform
  10. Support
  11. Training
  12. Warranty
  13. Pricing

We’ve also provided a handy appendix with an incomplete list of beacon manufacturers.

 

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Pro tips

You’ll see these appearing in italics through the text below. These give you extra bits of insight to consider and are often based on assumptions we’ve made previously that have subsequently come back to hurt us! So, let’s get into it.


 

1. Solution Overview

It’s surprising how often this is overlooked in the rush to adopt new tech, but asking these basic questions up front will allow you to gauge how well your selected manufacturer understand the technology they are building, but also importantly how good they are at communicating with you. If you’re going to be purchasing thousands of their products, you’ll want them to:

1.a Provide an overview of your company and key capabilities

1.b Provide an overview of your beacon hardware solution

1.c Provide an overview of your beacon software and management platform

1.d Provide solution architecture diagrams of the end to end solution

Pro tip: Click here for a link to a document with all of the questions in a table format.


 

2. Credentials

We appreciate that beacon hardware and iBeacon and Eddystone software protocols are all quite new technology, but we’ve already found that some manufacturers are fast learners that adapt their product in a fast and efficient manner and others that just don’t get it. Some have already amassed some great experience and intellectual property in specific industries. One of them might be yours - you’d like to know that, right?

2.a What’s your experience in <industry>?

2.b Provide details of existing customers and the scale to which the solution is utilised.

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Number of beacons
  • Number of sites
  • Number of end users
  • Number of admin users
  • Number of unique SDKs installed
  • Number of API calls per period
  • Specify if deployments are deployed to production or trial

2.c Provide details of production deployments citing clients and projects:

Pro tip: There aren’t as many use cases genuinely operating at scale yet, so consider asking to be provided with references to published iOS and Android apps that you can download from the relevant app store.


 

3. Core methodologies

It’s fairly easy to evaluate enclosure quality - the casing in which the beacon’s circuitry sits, but knowing what goes into the foundational firmware and software can be tricky.  Embedded technology development is difficult and we’ve seen several beacons built at a standard that is ok if you’re doing this as a hobby, but definitely not robust enough to be deployed at scale. So how can you tell if the provider adheres to good practices? As for responses to these questions:

3.a Describe your development and testing processes

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • How is core firmware and software developed?
  • How is software tested?
  • What is the change methodology?

3.b Describe your quality assurance processes

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • What quality certifications does the manufacturer hold? e.g. ISO9001
  • Has the manufacturing process undergone independent assessment?
  • To what level are manufacturing batches inspected?

3.c Describe your Service Level Agreements

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • How are service levels monitored?
  • What reporting is provided and at what frequency?

3.d Describe your approach to security

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Is the solution aligned to established security frameworks?
  • Has the solution undergone independent security attestation?
  • Have the solution undergoing security penetration testing?
  • How do you evaluate security of your service providers?

3.e Describe your approach to data management & ownership

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Who owns the data associated with beacon and location interactions?
  • Is the solution hosted on a shared platform?
  • Is data shared with third parties?

3.f Describe your processes for beacon provisioning & deployment

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Who is responsible for beacon provisioning and deployment?
  • What tools are provided to simplify deployments of large numbers of beacons and identify problematic beacons?
  • Are there tools to calibrate beacon coverage and define interaction zones?
  • Are beacons pre-configured?
  • Do beacons come in packages that can be easily posted to remote sites?

4. Hardware

Hardware is the heart of beacon interactions. If the hardware can’t reliably perform in the physical environment you need them to work in, it doesn’t matter how great your software is, your solution won’t work. The biggest shortfall we’ve found where the installation requires battery powered beacons, rather than AC, USB or Power over Ethernet (PoE) powered devices, is an inadequate battery to support reliable operation for more than 24 months. When you fully cost what it takes to replace a battery such as labour, transport, impact on other operations if high access equipment is required etc, the cost of replacing the battery can often exceed the cost of hardware in the first place. Have a good think about what the implications are for your business and then ask these questions:

4.a What beacon form factors are available?

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Indoor battery powered devices
  • Indoor AC/USB powered devices
  • Outdoor and waterproof devices

4.b For each beacon form factor, describe:

Pro tip: the following detail may be best provided in a table format.

4.b.1 Dimensions

Pro tip: For most use cases, we look for the smallest and least ‘interesting’ enclosure that will fit the PCB and battery.  We’ve discovered that interesting looking beacons tend to be those most often taken by curious visitors. At one recent trade show we lost an average of two well-stuck and secured beacons for every hour the expo was open.

4.b.2 Mounting options

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Mounting brackets
  • Adhesive tapes - have they tested how long these will stick and under what conditions? You’ll be amazed how quickly these things fall off the wall/ceiling if poor quality adhesives are used.

4.b.3 Is there a mechanical switch to enable/disable the beacon?

Pro tip: If beacons are not immediately deployed, can they be easily placed into a low power state until they are? How easily can they be woken up? Can this be done en masse or remotely?

4.b.4 Suitability for outdoor use

Pro tip: If beacons are to be used outdoors or in harsh indoor environments, consider asking about what the manufacturer says are the limitations of protection? This could be useful to build in as a standard for warranty replacement when deployed.

4.b.5 Is the case dustproof or waterproof?

4.b.6 Have devices passed enclosure certifications?

Pro tip: Consider asking for independent certifications such as:

  • IP5x: dustproof
  • IP66/IP67: dustproof & waterproof
  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL)

4.b.7 Do the enclosure and components comply with Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS)?

Pro tip: RoHS covers use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment which may be required for deployment into public environments.

4.b.8 Power supply characteristics

Pro tip: We often utilise a combination of battery and continuous powered (AC/USB) devices.  Having multiple power options provides greater use case flexibility.

4.b.9 If battery powered, what are the minimum operating specifications ?

Pro tip: Consider asking for a battery operating chart or table with common advertisement frequencies, for example:

  • iBeacon 10Hz @ 0dB
  • Power saving 3.3Hz @ 0dB
  • Multi-protocol beacons: supporting iBeacon at 3.3 Hz and Eddystone at 3.3 Hz @0dB

4.b.10 If battery powered, can batteries be replaced by the end user?

Pro tip: Some beacons may not allow replacement of batteries or require special tools limiting the effective life of such devices. If the battery can’t be replaced by the end user, does the manufacturer have some sort of recycling program to trade-in old for new?

4.b.11 If AC powered, have devices passed independent certifications?

Pro tip: Consider asking for independent certifications on electrical power regulation and required certification, such as:

  • Underwriters Laboratories (UL)
  • Australia Standards / New Zealand tick
  • CE

4.b.12 Wireless certification

Pro tip: Consider asking for wireless certifications for each in-scope country:

  • FCC: USA
  • IC: Canada
  • CE: Europe
  • Australia: Class Radio license or waiver

4.b.13 Supported advertising frequencies

Pro tip: Consider asking whether the beacon can support at these common frequencies:

  • 10Hz (100ms) iBeacon
  • 3.3Hz (330ms): common power saving
  • 1Hz (1000ms): low power mode

4.b.14 Supported transmit power settings

Pro tip: Consider asking whether the beacon can support these common output levels and how easily the output can be changed as this will enable the beacon to be utilised for different use cases:

  • 0dB: 50 meters
  • -12dB: 20 meters
  • -30dB: 2 meters
  • -40dB: <1 meter

4.b.15 Specify the BLE chipset utilised

Pro tip: Is the manufacturer using a known and quality chipset? Common chipsets include:

  • CSR101x
  • Nordic 51822
  • TI 2540/2541, TI 2650

4.b.16 What is the maximum line of sight distance that a beacon can be reliably detected by an iOS (iPhone 5) smartphone?

Pro tip: Maximum coverage may be important for outdoor use cases such as broadcasting into the car park from a store entrance.

4.b.17 What is the minimum line of sight distance that a beacon can be reliably detected by an iOS (iPhone 5) smartphone?

Pro tip: Minimum coverage may be important for select background notifications and interactions, such as those at a Point of Sale

4.c What continuous management devices are available and compatible with your beacons?

Pro tip: These devices allow you to manage, monitor and update a large number of beacons from a remote location. Example cloud connected continuous management devices include:

  • Bluvision BluFi
  • Kontakt Cloud Beacon
  • Radius Smart Beacon

4.e Can continuous management devices support connectivity over Ethernet or WiFi?

4.f How are continuous management devices powered?

4.g How are continuous management devices configured for each environment?


5. Protocols

Bluetooth has been built into our mobile phones since the 1990s.  The change in protocol to Bluetooth version 4 - a non-pairing design - is what makes it so interesting.  At a basic level, you’ll want to ensure that beacon support the most popular protocols (Apple’s iBeacon and soon Google’s Eddystone standard) to ensure app compatibility and telemetry data (e.g., battery level) for management.

5.a What BLE protocols and payloads are supported?

Pro tip: Consider asking for this detail:

  • Apple’s iBeacon
  • Google’s Eddystone
  • Altbeacon
  • other proprietary options
  • Also clarify if multiple payloads (e.g. iBeacon and Eddystone) can be supported concurrently on the same beacon.  Some support multiple payloads, others don't. This is useful if you want to use both protocols, but don’t want to install and manage two different beacons.

5.b How is ancillary/telemetry beacon data supported?

Pro tip: Consider asking for how you run a query on the beacon to establish:

  • What firmware version is the beacon running
  • What hardware version the beacon is
  • The beacon’s battery level
  • Current temperature
  • What is level of light
  • What is the reading from the accelerometer

Protocols such as iBeacon do not natively support the above ancillary data formats and not all beacons have these extra features. At a minimum, the information you’ll need to support large scale deployments is the firmware version and battery level.

5.c Are devices certified iBeacon compatible from Apple?

Pro tip: Apple has a certification program to help ensure compliance to their iBeacon protocol - not all beacons conform

5.d Are devices compatible with Google's Eddystone protocol? If so, which elements are supported

Pro tip:  Eddystone supports multiple payloads:

  • Eddystone – UID: a unique identifier
  • Eddystone – URL: supporting the Physical Web
  • Eddystone – TLM: telemetry information

5.e Does the beacon support range and transmission calibration? If so, how?

Pro tip: If distance calculation is important to your use case, the Software Development Kit (SDK) or management app should support some level of broadcast calibration


6. Security controls

Avoid a massive fail. Strong security controls should be non-negotiable.

6.a  How do you prevent unauthorised access to beacon firmware and configuration changes?

Pro tip: As most beacons support over the air updates, most providers employ a password, PIN or cloud key to restrict access to sensitive beacon settings

6.b What methods can be employed to prevent beacon spoofing and hijacking?

6.c Do beacons support rotating IDs, such as UUID, MajorID, MinorID?

Pro tip: Rotating beacon IDs may help prevent unauthorised use of your beacons, such as spoofing and piggybacking

6.d What are the SDK and network requirements for supporting rotating IDs?

6.e Does the SDK send any personally identifiable information to your management platform?

Pro tip:  Transmitting, processing or storing such as IP address, device ID or other unique properties may increase the complexity and scope of required security controls.


7. Configuration

Only after wasting tens of hours with inadequate configuration tools and apps can you fully appreciate a well designed configuration and management solution.  We’ve experienced a number of tools that even some of the most experienced technical talent in this field can’t operate effectively.  Leading solutions provide tools that can update an entire fleet of beacons in minutes, whilst others provide tools that take hours, days or even weeks to enact.

7.a What tools or applications are provided to make changes to beacons?

7.b Do the tools provide mechanisms to mass (batch) configure beacons?

7.c Do the tools provide an indication if a beacons settings match those defined in the management platform?

7.d Do the tools sync settings that are remotely defined on the management platform?

7.e Is there an option for pre-configuration of beacon properties to be done by the manufacturer before shipping?

Pro tip: If you already know the settings you want at each location, you can save many hours of deployment legwork if your manufacturer can deliver beacons already programmed (and labelled) to your specifications.

7.f How is beacon firmware updated?


8. Smartphone Software Development Kit (SDK)

Not all beacon solutions require an SDK.  For example, if using Apple’s native iBeacon protocol, you can deploy a simple solution using native libraries.  For those that do, be sure to qualify and evaluate it with your mobile development team.

8.a Is an SDK required to support customer facing beacon experiences?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • Can beacon interactions be managed by native smartphone libraries such as iBeacon on iOS or Eddystone in Android?
  • What additional features does the SDK provide above and beyond native libraries?

8.b Is an SDK available for iOS?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • What are the minimum Operating System requirements?
  • Does it support Objective-c and SWIFT 2.0 apps?

8.c Is an SDK available for Android devices?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • What are the minimum Operating System requirements?
  • if the provider supplies iBeacon certified beacons, has the provider obtained approval from Apple for supporting iBeacon in Android SDKs?

8.d Does the SDK support background beacon detection and ranging?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • How are these background services implemented?
  • What are the maximum numbers of unique background notices that can be triggered on iOS?

8.e Are SDKs open source?

8.f What permissions do SDKs require?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • Can these be configured for opt-in / opt-out?
  • Can you control when permissions are presented to the end user?

8.g Can the SDK be incorporated into multiple applications on the same smartphone?

Pro tip:  We’ve noted that some SDKs fail if more than one application - potentially issued by another company - on the smartphone utilises the same SDK

8.h Does the SDK support location services/geofence registrations?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • What location services does the SDK support: GPS, WiFi, Mobile network towers
  • Does the SDK allow concurrent use of geofences and beacons?

8.i Can the SDK restrict searching for beacons in a defined geofence?

8.j Can the SDK detect other potentially unauthorised or rogue beacons?

8.k How does the SDK support debugging and testing functions?

Pro tip:  Consider asking for detail on:

  • Can beacon interactions be stubbed in emulators?
  • Is there a tool to emulate beacons for testing and demos?

9. Management platform

Cloud management platforms have become the norm.  Whilst we all appreciate a good looking web portal, we tend to look beyond to tools that allow machine to machine interaction and configuration. If you’re trying to manage even just a few hundred beacons across multiple locations, the last thing you want to do is type each on in individually into a web portal.

9.a Does the platform support:

  • group configuration of UUID, MajorID, Minor IDs
  • configuration of multiple beacon formats: iBeacon, Eddystone, etc
  • group configuration of beacon transmission levels
  • grouping of beacons by site
  • flexible beacon tagging
  • updating of firmware
  • display of beacon status and last observed date/time
  • reporting of out-dated firmware
  • reporting of low beacon battery level
  • reporting of missing beacons
  • configurable alerts for defective beacons

9.b What type of data elements can be associated with each beacon?

Pro tip: Consider support for attributes like JSON data and Key-Pair values

9.c What type of analytics does the platform support:

Pro tip: Consider asking for analytics such as

  • install base
  • activity
  • dwell time
  • unique interactions

9.d What level of access (user roles) does the platform support?

Pro tip: You might now want everyone to have access to update your beacon formats. You may, for example, change this by region or at a store level.

9.e Does the platform support access by third party services?

9.f What external system integrations are supported by the platform?

9.g Are all of the platform functions accessible via internet-facing APIs?

9.h What level of logging and auditing does the platform enforce?

9.i Does the platform support version control, how?

9.j Does the platform allow for configuration of multiple environments, e.g., development, testing, production

9.k If so, how can changes from one environment be applied to others?

9.l Can beacons and the SDK be used independently of the management platform?

Pro tip: qualify if there are dependencies on the management platform for continued use of beacons and the SDK. Some require periodic calls to a cloud service that may increase overall cost of ownership and introduce another point of potential fault.

9.m Can beacons be used by 3rd party management platforms?

9.n What are the dependencies for using beacons in 3rd party platforms?


10. Support

Have you ever used a provider’s support line/email prior to committing to the full service? The response you get can be very telling!

10.a Describe the support services you provide

10.b What are the hours of your help desk?

Pro tip: Ask for the time zone too - business hours there may not be business hours for you!

10.c What are the response times for emergency support?

Pro tip: consider asking for the criteria and response times defined for different categories of fault.


11. Training

Deployment and operational support process are impacted with any new technology.  We’ve always been a fan of videos and train the trainer methods.

11.a What types of training are provided to support the deployment and management of beacons?


 12. Warranty

Beacons, just like anything physical, will fail. Batteries die prior to published lifetimes and environmental conditions and rough handling have destroyed more than a few of the beacons we deployed.  Fortunately, we’ve never run into an issue exchanging faulty beacons, but you might want to think about what a reasonable failure rate might be, or ask for the rate at which a manufacturer is happy to stand behind and provide a warranty for.

12.a What is the warranty period for beacons?

12.b Does the warranty cover battery loss prior to published minimum life?

12.c What is the beacon defect rate for beacons previously deployed?


13. Pricing

Often the place that most business and procurement teams start, but realistically we believe this is one of the final considerations. So many other costs can be hidden in under-performance on one of the other topic areas. The price of beacons, as with most types of hardware, is dropping year on year and quality and features are consistently improving too. You’ll still need to know what your initial capital investment is going to be though:

13.a Provide itemised pricing for each of:

  • Beacons: upfront and any ongoing annual costs
  • Beacon provisioning and deployment: upfront and any ongoing maintenance/replacement fees
  • Does the manufacturer provide site surveys, if so at what cost
  • SDK: upfront and any ongoing annual costs
  • Management platform: upfront and any ongoing annual cost

Pro tip: The majority of manufacturers will include some sort of tiered pricing for the number of SDK installs and/or API calls per period/second and/or number of admin users. Check what the limitations are and how this fits with your needs.

13.b Does pricing include VAT/GST?

13.c Does pricing include import/duty fees to each in-scope location?

Pro tip: this has hurt us more than once! For example, in Australia import duties can exceed 20% of the invoice and shipping cost - be sure to qualify and understand what your true landed costs will be!

13.d Supply capacity and lead time for delivering <XX,XXX> beacons per month

Pro tip: While the more established manufacturers can deliver many thousands of beacons in fairly short order, if you hit them at a peak period, there can be extensive unforeseen delays and/or quality control may suffer as they rush to get the order out.


We hope that you’ve found this guide to be useful. If you have any suggestions of what we could add, or questions about any of the detail, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

We’ve also put this information into a summarised table version for ease of use. You can access the document by clicking here. Feel free to use, modify and share in line with the creative commons licence described at the top of this post.

A non-comprehensive list of beacon providers

And finally, a non-comprehensive list of beacon providers and their websites to get you started. If you’re a manufacturer and you want to be on this list, or you have an updated website address, please get in touch and let us know.

 

Beacon provider Website
Aero http://www.discoveraero.com
Accent Systems http://www.accent-systems.com
April Brother http://aprbrother.com/en/index.htm
BKON http://bkon.com
BlueCats http://bluecats.com
BlueGiga https://www.bluegiga.com
Blue Sense Networks http://bluesensenetworks.com
Bluvision http://bluvision.com
Blueup http://www.blueupbeacons.com
Easibeacons http://www.easibeacon.com
EM Microelectronic http://www.emmicroelectronic.com
Estimote https://www.estimote.com
Gelo http://www.getgelo.com
Gimbal (Qualcomm) http://www.gimbal.com/
Glimworm http://glimwormbeacons.com
Infinity http://getifinity.com
Kontakt http://kontakt.io
KS technologies https://kstechnologies.com
Lightcurb https://www.lightcurb.com
Minew http://minew.en.alibaba.com
MPact (Zebra) https://www.zebra.com/us/en/products/location-solutions/mpact.html
Onyxbeacon http://www.onyxbeacon.com
Radius Network http://www.radiusnetworks.com
RECO http://reco2.me
Redbear Labs http://redbearlab.com
Roximity http://roximity.com
Sensorberg https://www.sensorberg.com
Sensoro http://www.sensoro.com
Signal360 http://www.signal360.com
Wellcorp http://wellcorping.en.alibaba.com

 

Posted by Tim Andrew - CEO and Co-Founder

| LinkedIn

Beacon   Eddystone   Hardware

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