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Shopping Mall Boasts Massive Wi-Fi Network

West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, offers visitors a Wi-Fi network the size of 48 city blocks.

West Edmonton Mall, a massive shopping and entertainment complex in Alberta, Canada, has set a new precedent for the use of wireless technologies in retail. The mall offers customers a Wi-Fi network the size of 48 city blocks and is developing new ways to use the network to run operations, including mall security and customer check-in to its hotel.

The mall features more than 800 stores, 110 eating establishments, and an indoor amusement park with a tropical rain forest, bungee jumping, and a water park. Many visitors stay in the mall's Fantasyland hotel. The entire property is served by a Siemens Communications Inc.-based network, including 55 hot-spot access points, that the mall calls Wemisphere.

Mall visitors aren't just riding roller coasters and buying clothes. About 2,000 visitors use Wemisphere, deployed seven months ago, to access the Internet, says Joe Schuldhaus, VP of information technology at West Edmonton. "We're giving people convenience where they want it and when they want it," he says.

This past spring West Edmonton retail tenants began selling Wemisphere access cards to shoppers. When an account is activated, customers are redirected to the tenant's Web site or a promotional page. Then shoppers can use their Internet-enabled handheld devices as a shopping aid: As they walk through the mall, specific retail promotions appear on their screens when they pass by those retailers. This is accomplished by using a location-based technology portal that targets where account users are located in the mall. "We know where users are roaming because they are connected to the portal, and we are able to target them with specific [ads] as they pass through the mall," Schuldhaus says.

Schuldhaus sees Wi-Fi as a great enabler for a variety of future applications. For example, in the next six months the mall will deploy surveillance cameras that security guards can control from anywhere, including patrol cars, using Wi-Fi-equipped devices such as laptops, pocket PCs, and tablet PCs.

Additionally, the mall's Fantasyland Hotel staff will be able to check in visitors curbside using wireless handheld devices, preventing guests from having to stand in line at a check-in desk. The staff will swipe and authorize credit cards and issue room keys curbside.

Schuldhaus also plans to use the wireless network for voice over IP within the next year. The idea is to equip customer-service personnel and hotel staff with VoIP handsets and soft phones so they can be more easily reached, Schuldhaus says. "We can begin to replace desksets with [wireless handsets] says for our staff, and location-based information will assist us in delivering timely responses to critical situations."

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