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CN Tower climbs heights with mobile engagement platform

The CN Tower, Canada's tallest building, implements an Aruba mobile engagement platform to connect with customers.

The CN Tower -- at 1,815 feet, it's the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and one of Canada's leading tourist attractions -- has installed Aruba's Mobile Engagement platform in a bid to drive ticket sales and encourage return visits. The CN Tower deployed Aruba's 802.11ac gigabit wireless LAN, along with Aruba ClearPass policy management and AirWave management software, and it plans to deploy Wave 2 technology as it becomes available.

The network, featuring a new CN Tower Experience app, was activated earlier this year as part of the tower's 40th anniversary celebration. The new app offers "blue dot" indoor navigation to help visitors navigate three levels of observation decks, two restaurants, a café and the KidZone play area, as well as a 5,000-square-foot gift shop.

In addition to navigation functions, Tower Experience -- which already has 4,000 downloads -- delivers proximity-based marketing messages and on-site information to help visitors buy tickets and reserve spots at restaurants.

The old network -- or lack thereof

When Kevin McManus joined the CN Tower as director of IT in 2013, Canada's most famous building had barely embraced wireless networking. McManus said there was "nothing public [and] nothing corporate" at the time. In fact, the CN Tower's only Wi-Fi network was found at a single restaurant, served by an aging Hewlett-Packard -- now Hewlett Packard Enterprise -- system.

We had a goal or vision to engage continuously with our customers past purchasing a ticket.
Kevin McManusdirector of IT, CN Tower

McManus coordinated with the CN Tower's marketing department to design a proposal to upgrade the facility's Wi-Fi infrastructure. "[We saw] the changing demographic and uptake of mobility not just here in Canada, but across the globe and the need to be a part of that and attract that demographic," he said. "We had a goal or vision to engage continuously with our customers past purchasing a ticket."

The CN Tower's first step was to improve cellular reception, which it did in May 2015 when it extended Long-Term Evolution throughout the tower through a project with Bell Canada. But soon after, the CN Tower was searching for a dedicated mobile engagement platform. The CN Tower's IT and marketing departments wanted to engage with guests after they moved past the ticket purchase, offering more tour information, informational signage and TV screens. "Could this engagement lead to sales and other revenue opportunities? What data could we harvest and use for operational efficiency, and also possible repeat business?" McManus said about the project's goals.

Adopting a mobile engagement platform

Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, got the nod because it provided an integrated platform that combined access with security and management tools. Beginning in the fall of 2015 and continuing through the early winter of 2016, the CN Tower will have installed 60 Aruba access points and 160 beacons throughout the property.

Once the wireless LAN was activated, CN Tower used it solely for corporate use, but after testing, it opened guest Wi-Fi to the public and began gathering user data from ClearPass.

According to McManus, the data helped the CN Tower lay the foundation for the second stage of its project, which involved building the CN Tower Experience app. The third and final stage of the project -- gathering analytics -- will go live later this year.

"We're looking to take advantage of [Aruba's Analytics and Location Engine] product. We're going to use that to get our feet wet from a trends, times and analytics [perspective]," McManus said, adding that the CN Tower is not considering other commercial products right now. 

The CN Tower network can support up to 5,000 simultaneous users. It typically attracts between 10,000 and 12,000 users on a busy summer day at the height of tourist season. Offering free Wi-Fi is an incentive to keep visitors on the property.

McManus said the CN Tower had to carefully plan how to serve its guests, while restricting access by other users -- in particular, Toronto Blue Jays' fans, who flock to games at the adjacent Rogers Centre.

At game time, 10,000 to 15,000 spectators may be trying to join Wi-Fi networks in the area. To drive visitors to the CN Tower itself and to cut down on potential oversubscription, the tower controls access via a walled garden, attracting the public as it limits Wi-Fi availability outside the property.

McManus said the CN Tower worked closely with Aruba to keep service disruptions to a minimum. "[As a result], no outages, no failures, no crashes," he said.

Next steps for the mobile engagement platform

Lisa Tompkins, the tower's director of sales, marketing and communications, said guest response to the new mobile engagement platform has been positive. In stage three, with the analytics piece in operation, "[We can] push notification opportunities. That will just increase our ability to talk to our guests -- plus, on the analytics side, where we see all these devices coming through geolocation, point of origin, quantifying or qualifying where our visitors are actually coming from," she said.

Other than adding analytics, McManus said the underlying infrastructure will be "pretty much status quo" for a while to come. "The tech has changed twice already in the past six months -- even more powerful, bigger, better [and] smaller," he said. "The beacons we bought will eventually shrink to RFID [radio frequency identification] size. The batteries have a two-year life span, monitored from a control station. New ones have five-year life span," McManus added.

Tompkins and McManus said they believe other organizations can learn from the CN Tower's experiences in implementing a mobile engagement platform. "It's still the main question: the ability to engage, the ability to stay in constant communication with your guests, if they so choose. Build a marketing strategy around this," McManus said, adding that for customer-facing groups like the CN Tower, a corporate Wi-Fi strategy is secondary.

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