Municipalities race to keep up with wireless evolution

Toronto’s municipal wireless network has kicked nine American cities in the access point in a recent survey of the top 10 North American cities offering Wi-Fi.

The survey, conducted by San Francisco-based Novarum, a wireless technologies consultancy, found that Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc.’s OneZone Wi-Fi network offers Internet upload and download rates at five Mbps, far surpassing the performance of all other tested networks.

The other cities tested include Philadelphia, the California cities of Galt, Palo Alto, Anaheim, Mountain View and Santa Clara, as well as St. Cloud, Fla., Madison, Wis., and Tempe, Ariz. The networks were tested, said Novarum, with industry-standard tools in the third and fourth quarters of 2006.

Toronto’s wireless network was on average five times faster than any of the other networks tested.

According to Jim Freeze, senior vice-president of marketing and alliances at the company that built downtown Toronto’s 10-square-kilometre wireless mesh network, BelAir Networks, Toronto’s success is due to the technology and architecture it used. Many wireless networks use shared mesh, meaning a single radio and single channel serve for both access points and backhaul, he said. That allows for easy scalability and cost-effective deployment of a wireless network, but it also means the more users you have sharing access, the greater the performance degradation you’ll experience.

Toronto’s wireless network was built using four switched access points, one of which brings in traffic from the devices, while the other three have point-to-point links.

“Switched mesh operates the same way (as shared), but it’s a more sophisticated mesh technology,” said Freeze. “You don’t have a single radio where information is shared among all access points that can hear each other, you have multiple radios, so you end up directing traffic.”

All the traffic from one access point goes over a dedicated network, which translates into higher bandwidth, lower latency and ultimately much better performance to the end user, he said.

“You get dramatically higher performance and a really rocking network, quite frankly, when you use our technology with switched mesh as opposed to technology from others which is only shared mesh.”

One of the challenges municipalities face in planning for wireless networks is not just the usual issue of getting access to poles and buildings they might not own, or dealing with interference caused by tall buildings, but that of ensuring their project is not technologically obsolete by the time it’s actually up and running. Municipal wireless network projects can take years from conception to reality, during which time the technology can advance enormously.

“We ended up in a very different place than anyone had anticipated,” said Sally Wesorick, wireless city project manager for the City of Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Wireless Cities Summit Wednesday. “The technology has evolved so quickly.”

Grand Rapids began its research in 2004. It won’t have its WiMAX-based wireless network up for another year.

“The first lesson is be flexible,” she advised. “Don’t lock yourself into anything.”

Obsolescence won’t be an issue for Toronto’s network, said Freeze.

“One of the concerns many cities have is ‘We deploy this network and one year from now, Wi-MAX becomes really important and how do we support that without having to tear down everything we put in?’ Or, the current technology is fine but all of a sudden there’s so much usage we have to upgrade capacity so how do we do that?” he said, adding that the BelAir platform is very modular in terms of how it builds an architecture, so it’s easy to upgrade capacity. “By the same token it’s very easy to upgrade our nodes — you pull one module out and plug a new card in. That’s a very substantial issue, so our advice to cities is make sure the vendor you’re working with has a futureproof platform.”

Toronto’s wireless network has been free for the past few months. But on March 7, the free lunch is over. Three pricing packages will be available: a pre-paid monthly subscription rate of $29; a 24-hour rate of $10; and an hourly fee of $5.

That’s a different approach than that taken by many other municipalities, including Fredericton.

CIO Maurice Gallant said the city just wanted to give people free access to the Internet. Fredericton, which recently expanded its service, now has about 340 access points in areas such as the airport, hotels, malls and other public places. It uses Motorola access points and Cisco routing equipment.

“When you come to Fredericton I want to give you the illusion there’s coverage everywhere,” he said. “If you try to catch me or trip me up and hide behind a big building you will find all kinds of spots that aren’t covered, but they are not where folks are liable to try to get a connection.”

Fredericton hadn’t originally planned to provide free wireless access, but it realized it had just put in a fibre infrastructure for city needs, Gallant said.

“Then we complemented that with a point-to-multipoint wireless infrastructure for the city’s needs and we asked the community if anyone wanted on.”

The city became an ISP to a number of local companies, and once they had the backbone, adding Wi-Fi was a logical next step, he said.

“Adding Wi-fi was not the big challenge it would be for somebody starting from scratch, so going to council and saying we can leverage all that stuff we did and offer free public access wasn’t a hard sell,” said Gallant.

Gallant agreed that the rapid pace of technology change can pose an issue for municipalities. But for Fredericton, it isn’t so much that technology has evolved so quickly as much as the number and type of wireless of devices has proliferated at a rate few might have predicted.

“While we knew there were going to be Wi-Fi devices, we hadn’t foreseen a lot of them,” he said. “I can’t deny that’s causing a challenge. It’s the wild west; it’s unlicensed spectrum … so there are areas we used to have coverage now we can’t reach because of interference, so of course the landscape changes and it continues to be a challenge. The trick is to do it in small manageable chunks.”

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