An airline worker uses a mobile computer on the tarmac to track inventory being loaded into a plane's cargo hold.
By Nader Newman | July 13, 2023

Why You May Not Always Want Your Workers’ Android Mobile Devices to Automatically Connect to Wi-Fi

It’s a matter of productivity and whether or not your workers can actually get anything done.

As consumers, we have become so used to our smartphones being “smart” enough to auto-connect to authorized Wi-Fi networks that we don’t really give the quality of that network connection a second thought – or any thought. But we should, especially as business leaders. 

Just because a Wi-Fi network is “available” doesn’t mean that it’s the right network to connect to at this moment. In fact, I would bet that many of your front-line workers complain about poor connections – or simply try to work around them – more often than you personally know because their Android devices are designed to automatically connect to Wi-Fi whenever available, even when a cellular network has better signal strength and would enable them to work more efficiently and help boost productivity. 

I realize Android devices prefer low-power network connections, but you and your team may prefer strong, continuous cellular network connectivity depending on how the device is being used. 

That’s why Zebra engineers have spent the last several months developing Enhanced Connection Manager, which is going to let you decide whether WWAN (i.e., cellular) networks should be the first/automatic connection for your workers’ Android devices or whether to stick with WLAN (i.e., Wi-Fi).  

We know you don’t necessarily want authorized Wi-Fi networks to be the “priority connection” for your front-line workers’ mobile devices *unless* those networks are confirmed to be the best connection in that moment based on signal strength and network performance. You can’t afford for workers to struggle with spotty and unstable wireless network connections that lead to dropped calls, slow data downloads and “spinning” webpages, especially not when revenue is directly influenced by efficiency and productivity levels. So, it’s time to change how networks are automatically selected as workers move about a building so they can maintain stable connections. 

Why We’re Rethinking Priorities (and You Should Too)

As you probably know (based on your own business usage), Zebra devices are often used in large spaces or on multi-building campuses such as airports, retail stores, restaurants, hospitals and the like where the Wi-Fi connection is typically the priority connection. 

In these settings, the Connection Manager within Android always prefers WLAN over WWAN. But if your workers are moving about in an environment, the WLAN signal’s strength may fluctuate depending on their proximity to access points. Instead of trying to add more access points to create a more stable WLAN connection throughout the entire facility, enabling your workers’ devices to automatically switch over to a WWAN network that has a stronger signal in that particular area could solve this problem.  

That said, I know the current default behavior of the Android OS Connection Manager is to auto-switch to WLAN when available; it accounts for signal strength but not optimal signal strength. So, the only way your workers would be able to get the benefit of the stronger/more reliable WWAN when in an area with a weaker or non-existent WLAN signal would be to manually go into the device settings and turn off the Wi-Fi connection so that the device switches to cellular. But we both know this is just as disruptive to their personal productivity and your organization’s workflows as an inconsistent or slow wireless network connection. 

So, Zebra teams have extended the existing connection manager functionality to basically allow our Android mobile devices to detect the strongest wireless network in the area where device users are working every moment of every day and automatically switch to that preferred network based on your policy, whether it’s a Wi-Fi or cellular network. This means they could walk six feet to the left and be on Wi-Fi and then walk six feet back to the right and be on cellular – but they won’t have to manually switch between them. They’ll just know they have a steady wireless connection so they can keep working uninterrupted.

The Enhanced Communication Manager is available as of today on your Zebra Android mobile devices, so your IT administrators can access it right now to:

  • create prioritized lists of cellular (WWAN) and/or Wi-Fi (WLAN) networks within your operating areas, each identified by its associated access point name (APN). 

  • set minimum signal levels for connection to both cellular and Wi-Fi access points.

  • deploy those rankings/requirements to workers’ devices to dictate connection decisions.

Once they get this done, you’ll instantly see the mobile device user experience improve because the performance and quality of data communication will become more reliable. Fewer disruptions mean more work can be done and faster. Workers’ frustration levels should also drop off as connection levels seemingly stabilize. 

If that isn’t enough to motivate you to reprioritize networks using the new Enhanced Connection Manager, maybe money will talk? By directing your workers’ devices to connect to the most reliable and responsive network, you will automatically reduce operational costs by reducing the wait time required for workers to start each task and eliminating the risk of having to repeat a task within their workflow due to a slow or dropped connection. In the end, this provides the control and flexibility for a better overall user experience. 

If you want to personally check it out, or point your IT administrators in the right direction, check out our online documentation on the Network Connection Manager here

What About Windows?

If you have Zebra’s Windows rugged tablets deployed today, you may be wondering if Enhanced Connection Manager is available to you, too. As of today, the enhancement is only designed to work with Android devices mainly because of how Android devices are designed to behave per the default. However, Windows does provide an option to prefer cellular over Wi-Fi. 

Have More Questions?

If you have concerns about wireless connectivity performance on Windows devices, or you have more questions specific to the Enhanced Communication Manager for Android, contact your Zebra account manager. You can also find more information on the Enhanced Communication Manager for Android in the Zebra Techdocs.  

Energy and Utilities, Healthcare, Manufacturing, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Field Operations, Hospitality, Banking, Public Sector,
Nader Newman
Nader Newman

Nader Newman is currently a Product Manager at Zebra where he is responsible for Zebra’s Enterprise Mobile Computing Wireless Connectivity Solutions for Wi-Fi, Cellular, and PAN. Nader has more than 20 years of experience within the mobile industry and has managed Zebra’s Mobility DNA software portfolio, including Zebra’s Mobility Extensions, suite of development offerings and Terminal Emulation products.

Previously, he served as Product Manager with Motorola Solutions and Psion, where he managed a portfolio of software products, Wi-Fi access points and wireless base stations. Nader holds Computer Specialist and Digital Telephony Service degrees from Toronto School of Business as well as Humber College. 

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