Ontario’s Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant counties are not far southwest of Toronto, but they are largely rural, and in much of the area there is no optical fibre infrastructure. So to provide high-speed communications among schools in the area, the Grand Erie District School Board and the Brant Haldimand-Norfolk

Catholic School Board turned to fixed wireless connections.

The Grand Erie board has close to 100 schools, with 32,000 students, 1,800 teachers, 890 staff and some 6,000 workstations, says Mark Osborne, manager of information technology services infrastructure. The Catholic school board, which also uses Grand Erie’s wireless network, is about one-third the size of the public one.

Osborne says the Grand Erie board took its first steps into wireless communications about five years ago, erecting fixed wireless towers at some schools using 2.4-GHz point-to-point network links. It now has 32 towers, some serving groups of several schools linked by Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connections.

The network had some early reliability problems, due largely to poor installation of some of the original hardware by another contractor Osborne declines to name. The board has corrected many of those deficiencies, with a noticeable improvement in performance. Weather has little effect on the wireless signals, he adds.

Contractor installed dish on tallest building

Because of incompatibilities among different vendors’ 2.4-GHz equipment, the board has recently been moving toward the 5-GHz spectrum, which like 2.4-GHz, is an unlicensed range. Osborne says the board might use licensed spectrum in the future.

The board recently brought in Oshawa, Ont.-based Cygnal Technologies Corp. to upgrade the network backbone from Brantford — the largest city in the area and home of the school district’s main offices — southward to the town of Boston and on to Waterford. Osborne says the Brantford-to-Boston link had been a problem for some time, and Cygnal solved the problem by installing a six-metre dish on top of the Brantford General Hospital — the tallest building in the city — pointing at Boston.

Likening the network to a freeway with a number of on-ramps, Darin Gibbons, director of the carrier network group at Cygnal, says the highway had become congested and Cygnal’s job was to build a new one. The backbone uses 45-megabit-per-second (Mbps) Tsunami technology from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim Inc.

Before upgrading the backbone, Cygnal conducted a careful site survey. Technicians climbed to the top of Brantford General Hospital with test equipment to check in all directions for radio signals that might interfere with the proposed link. They also took co-ordinates using the Global Positioning System (GPS) to check the link against data on the terrain for possible obstacles. This survey is critical, Gibbons says. “”If you miss the boat on the design criteria going into it, it’ll never be reliable.””

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