WiFi or Bluetooth Beacons for indoor location?

  • We weigh the pros and cons of WiFi & Beacon technology for location-based services, proximity marketing & location analytics
  • The benefits of installing Bluetooth® Beacons in your venue justifies their minimal cost
  • The most powerful solution is a combination of WiFi & Beacon technology for analytics and wayfinding

Increasingly, WiFi providers are utilizing access points that don't just provide or boost WiFi signals. Modern buildings, particularly workplaces, may have dozens or even of hundreds of access points to ensure robust WiFi access. That's a lot of hardware to install just for one technology, which is why we've seen the rise in smart access points, one type of which can also function as a Bluetooth Beacon. The question now is, can a smart building, such as one leveraging indoor positioning or indoor navigation systems, function with just WiFi access points?

How does WiFi localization and indoor triangulation work?

Though there are a variety of different methods available for WiFi triangulation and localization systems (due to the range of features found within WiFi access points), the majority of these techniques utilize a version of fingerprinting (which we've explained in great detail in this post). The process looks something like this:

  1. A building is fitted with multiple WiFi access points to ensure strong wireless coverage 
  2. A team of testers take a series of readings throughout the building, recording their location, testing the respective signal strengths in that location from multiple access points, moving locations, and repeating
  3. This 'map' of locations with their signal strengths from different access points is stored within a database accessible to a user-facing app
  4. When a user visits the building with their smartphone's WiFi enabled and accesses the app, the app can take their WiFi signals being received by the device, cross check them with the map, and provide an approximate location for the user's smartphone
  5. Certain types of WiFi access points are able to calculate other pieces of data, such as the device's angle of arrival and timing data to further improve their accuracy

As with other types of fingerprinting-based indoor localization systems, there are challenges associated with this type of WiFi system. Firstly, to create the 'map' of locations with their different signal strengths is time-consuming, manual work. Secondly, and perhaps more critically, any changes within the indoor location that interfere with the signal strengths - such as moving access points or something being added to the location which blocks a signal - can throw the entire 'map' off and require the entire location to be mapped again, an issue which has led to fingerprinting rarely being used in indoor locations where an objective is to scale the solution.

Should I use WiFi or Beacons in my venue for indoor location and navigation?

Should you install Bluetooth in your venue, especially if you already have WiFi installed?

The decision should be based on what your organization wants to accomplish. Are you looking for visitor engagement and location analytics in your venue?

If you’re looking to engage customers based on their location or to provide an indoor navigation experience, Bluetooth technology is clearly the best choice. With far greater location accuracy, your visitor will get the best possible in-venue experience.

Are you looking solely for location analytics? Combining WiFi and Bluetooth analytics is your best bet. WiFi Access Points (APs) collect data from customer devices creating invaluable insights on store visits for a large portion of visitors. Bluetooth technology adds an additional level of granularity, allowing you to see how single users interact with your venue and to measure the success of proximity messaging. 

Comparison: Wi-Fi vs Beacon technology


Bluetooth® Beacons


Is the location accurate?



Is it compatible with Android phones?



Is it compatible with iPhones? 


Yes, but iOS doesn’t support ranging for Wi-Fi. Without ranging, positioning is difficult and inaccurate. 

Does it drain battery on the user’s phone? 

Low energy consumption 

High energy consumption 

Does it work offline?

Positioning even when there is no data connection

WiFi can sometimes get overloaded if you have a lot of users connecting to a network

Is it costly to install? 

Inexpensive (~20x less than Wi-Fi)

Time consuming & expensive

Is maintenance required? 

Beacon replacement process after 2-4 years

Calibration process required & regular check ups 


Which type of beacon provides the greatest accuracy?

Bluetooth Beacons can give an indoor positioning accuracy of +/-1m. In retail for example, Bluetooth technology allows you to differentiate between a customer looking at suits and a customer looking at swimwear, which completely changes how you engage with them.

It is rare to get good accuracy from WiFi access points due to the high power levels of WiFi signals and the distribution of WiFi access points. Even in the best cases the accuracy is unlikely to be better than +/-10m and is often closer to +/-15m. 

This has huge ramifications for indoor positioning, wayfinding, and activity such as proximity marketing, where the marketing messages served are reliant upon positioning. The lack of accuracy provided by WiFi signals means proximity marketing based entirely upon WiFi signals is likely to provide limited efficacy. 

Android and iOS Compatibility

Android allows ranging for both WiFi and Bluetooth. However, iOS supports ranging for Bluetooth signals but not for WiFi. Without ranging, positioning is difficult and inaccurate. 

With Bluetooth, positioning on iOS is quick and easy - it takes less than a second to achieve accurate indoor positioning. Positioning with WiFi on iOS entails a convoluted process. A clever access point needs to sniff signals, link this information with the device ID and process the information in the cloud, before sending it back to the device. This process gives poor accuracy and takes 10-30 seconds. Moreover, with iOS 8, Apple have started rotating device MAC addresses (like a device ID) randomly, which means you cannot track a device very far before it ‘transforms’ into a new device. 

Cost and Installation

Bluetooth devices are low cost and can be mounted to a wall or ceiling without any cabling requirements. WiFi access points require more setup to function as positional beacons: they need power and a data connection in order to function, along with significant backend infrastructure which administers user access and permissions. The cost of this equipment often mounts up, and brings with it a time consuming and expensive installation process. To enable indoor positioning with WiFi, extra access points often need to be installed to get near 10m accuracy. Bluetooth devices cost ~20x less than WiFi devices and there is a clear benefit in the installation process of Bluetooth technology, both in terms of time and cost. Particularly when it comes to large or complex indoor spaces, Bluetooth beacons are almost always the most cost effective method of achieving an accurate indoor positioning system.

Is it easier to maintain indoor positioning via Bluetooth or WiFi?

No ongoing calibration is required to ensure high accuracy positioning following initial setup when using Pointr Deep Location® as Pointr does not use fingerprinting for positioning.

Battery powered BLE beacons will require replacement (or fresh batteries) every 3 - 5 years. This can generate some cost, but will also tie in with the hardware upgrade process which will enable much more dynamic reaction to new technology in the future. 

When enabling indoor positioning with WiFi, a calibration process is required to ensure that WiFi signals have a good accuracy. This process needs repeating after any significant movement of equipment (especially metal and glass), in addition to the checkups required to ensure the routers are working as expected for internet access. 

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Which technology enables offline access?

Bluetooth enables positioning even when there is no data connection, allowing features such as navigation, messaging and proximity notifications. 

WiFi networks can sometimes be overloaded during busy periods. This causes it to become unstable and disruptive for indoor positioning or indoor navigation services.

Could WiFi work alongside Bluetooth Beacons?

When technologies meet and work together they can become more powerful. Depending on your needs and objectives for indoor location solutions, you might decide to use a combination of Bluetooth and WiFi technology.

To make matters potentially more complicated, the lines between beacons and other technology, including WiFi access points, are beginning to blur. Many WiFi access points, as well as other pieces of hardware such as smart lights, now come equipped with Bluetooth technology inside, effectively serving as a beacon themselves. This is important to note when you see 'beacon WiFi' mentioned!

At Pointr, we help you get it right. We are a global technology leader in real-time location for smart venues. We are hardware agnostic, which means we are not biased towards one technology or another. We analyze your needs and we decide which technology makes sense for you. Contact us if you're keen to unlock the power of location for your venue.