City of Barrie takes control of wireless infrastructure

The City of Barrie has completed the first phase of its plan to build a “wireless umbrella” which will allow any of the municipality’s facilities or vehicles to access its network.

DragonWave Inc. on Monday said Barrie had chosen its AirPair product, which provides wire-speed native Ethernet connectivity up to 200 Mbps full duplex and operates within both licensed and unlicensed radio frequencies of 18-to-26-GHz range. Phase one of the project, which started in June, involved setting up a four-node ring to connect 25 locations in the city. At least two more rings are planned once other facilities in the south east end of the Ontario city are built.

Barrie has been a municipal wireless pioneer, starting in 1996 when it connected its library to city hall through an optical network link. In 2001, it added some smaller sites including a city marina and arena, its operations centre in 2003 and its youth centre. While Barrie has traditionally opted to rent its wireless infrastructure, Larry Bacik, the city’s director of info and communications technologies, said it was time to get more control over its future.

“We needed more bandwidth to more places. Costs were starting to escalate to the point where they were becoming the largest line item on my budget, other than salaries,” he said. “Municipalities have a responsibility for the security and destiny of their own networks.”

Alan Solheim, DragonWave’s Ottawa-based vice-president of marketing, said he’s seeing the same shift away from the rental model in other public sector organizations, including hospitals and school boards.

“There are more than 50 different RFPs in Canada and U.S. from cities the size of Barrie to San Francisco,” he said. “The fundamental problem for these guys is that even a couple of years ago, a twisted pair, a dialup or DSL connection provided adequate bandwidth for what they were doing . . . now the capital costs pay off for themselves in a year or two years.”

AirPair provides Barrie with the foundation for a wireless mesh network, which allow access points to route traffic to one another instead of through a cablebut Bacik said the decision to move in that direction has not yet been made.

“I don’t favour mesh myself, but it is an option later on,” he said. “There are too many points to maintain, operating costs are too high, and there are too many points of failure. I like the cellular concept, where there’s maybe four towers that have the power.”

Solheim said wireless mesh strategies depend in part on the traffic volumes being run over the network.

“To scale the network, you’d have to have a multi-point access solution and then backhaul it back to the centralized hop for the Internet. It really depends on where people are in the evolution of their thinking,” he said.

City staff are acting as project managers for the AirPair deployment, with a company called CaTech Systems Ltd. as its channel partner. Bacik said municipalities that follow Barrie’s path should think carefully about the rent-vs.-own debate.

“It doesn’t cost much to put these things in. It’s the operating costs. It’s the long-term operational needs you have to really look at,” Bacik said. “You’ve got to be really frank with yourself as to what the operating costs are, and you have to dedicate staff to it.”

Other DragonWave installations include the North Bay region and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

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