Telecom Ottawa Ltd. has begun trials of a variant of WiFi wireless data technology that extends WiFi’s usual 100-metre range to about one kilometre and can hand off connections between adjacent access points as the cellular telephone

network does.

The wireless system, developed by Ottawa-based BelAir Networks, is accessible by computers with standard 802.11b or WiFi wireless networking cards or Intel Corp.’s Centrino chip set with built-in WiFi. But instead of the usual omnidirectional antennas, BelAir’s system uses antennas that cover a wedge approximately 65 degrees wide and extending up to one kilometre from the access point, said Phil Belanger, BelAir’s vice-president of marketing.

Belanger said this allows BelAir to place a single access point outside a large building and cover the entire building, up to 20 or 30 floors.

BelAir’s system also uses a variant of 802.11 to link multiple access points in a wireless mesh, so that they can share a single wired connection. “You don’t have to go trenching down a city street to bring a wired connection to your access point,” Belanger said. Linking the access points also allows them to hand off sessions. “You’re handed off just as you would be in the cellular network when you move from cell to cell.”

Telecom Ottawa has initially set up one access point at Ottawa City Hall and one at the Nepean Sportsplex, which is one of the busiest sports venues in the capital region, said Dave Dobbin, Telecom Ottawa’s chief operating officer. The next stage of Telecom Ottawa’s plan, Dobbin said, will be to start meshing the units together to cover wider areas.

Eventually Telecom Ottawa — a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa Holding Inc. that provides broadband data services and Internet access over a 10-gigabit, optical fibre network covering the Ottawa metropolitan area — hopes to blanket the capital with the wireless “hot zones,” Dobbin said.

First, he added, the company must complete technical trials and make sure the business model is viable. Initially, there is no charge to use the wireless service. Dobbin said his company hopes to keep it that way for Telecom Ottawa subscribers, but plans to charge others for access. The rate structure hasn’t been determined, he said.

Belanger said Telecom Ottawa’s is actually the second deployment of his company’s technology in the Ottawa area. Spotnik Mobile Inc., a Toronto-based hotspot operator, is using it to provide wireless access at the Radisson hotel in Ottawa. Unlike many hotel hotspot installations that cover only public areas such as hotel lobbies and coffee shops, Spotnik’s Radisson setup provides access throughout the hotel, Belanger said.

Michael Rozender, an Oakville, Ont., consultant specializing in wireless networking, said wireless mesh networks are spreading. The Canopy system from Motorola Corp. takes this approach, he said, and Nortel Networks Corp. is involved in trials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and with British Telecom.

“It’s still a little bit of an iffy technology,” Rozender said — one concern is that if one access point fails, others that depend on it will fail also, so some redundancy must be built into the network — but mesh networking eliminates the need for a backhaul connection to every wireless access point.

The question is whether the emerging WiMax or 802.16 wireless standard — which has much wider range than WiFi — will compete with 802.11 meshes. Belanger said BelAir may incorporate WiMax into its system eventually, and does not see it as a competitor. Rozender said the jury is still out, and will remain so until early WiMax deployments are in place.

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