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Hotspots of the Future

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It was clear to anyone that visited the Networld+Interop show in Vegas this week that wireless LAN access points are already undergoing a speedy and dramatic evolution from their original form of bland, black boxes into a number of different dedicated form factors for indoor and outdoor usage.

In general, the indoor units are getting smaller and less intrusive, while the (far larger) outdoor units are sprouting tough exteriors designed to enable their use in all weathers and terrains.

This evolution is an ongoing process, so, Unstrung asked some of the vendors at the show what they expect the future to look like.

Trapeze Networks Inc., which has designed its "mobility points" to look like smoke detectors, reckons that the devices could get even smaller over time. "Radios are getting smaller, CPUs are getting smaller," says Biran Bailey, who does product marketing for the WLAN switch startup [ed. note: not "bigger than a club," then].

It is also possible that in the future extra, non-wireless features could be bolted onto access points as they become part of the corporate landscape. Bailey says that there is a "joke" inside Trapeze about "Version 17" of the company's access point, which, he chuckles, will include an actual built-in "smoke detector, muzak speaker, and a video camera."

Right. Moving on...

Some people are looking at incorporating the radio nodes even more deeply into the fabric of a company. Unstrung spoke to David Beberman, CEO of WLAN startup Corporate WaveNet Inc., a name that may be familiar to regular readers of our message boards. The frenetic Mr. Beberman suggests that one possible evolutionary stage for access points could be to build radios into ceiling tiles that can be installed next to each other to provide complete (nay, total) wireless coverage in a building. And Beberman claims that his company has the answer to the interference problems that having so many access points so close together would cause.

Companies looking at delivering outdoor 802.11 public access hotspots are much more concerned with the problems of powering and providing inexpensive backhaul for the access points than they are with their form factors.

Solar power could be one option for powering outdoor hotspots. "We've been examining that," says Efstratios "Efstratospheric" Skafidas, CTO of Bandspeed Inc. (see Bandspeed's Six-Eyed Gypsy ). He reckons that it would be possible to power Bandspeed's current Gypsy "enhanced access point" design in sunny climates. The box uses "something like 12 watts" of power, he says [ed. note: he didn't say whether it steals it from the local power lines].

Even Trapeze, which uses Power-Over-Ethernet (POE) to juice up its nodes, acknowledges the possibility of using alternative power sources for access points that are a ways away from its traffic switching hub. "I don't think it's out of this world," says Trapeze's Bailey of the prospects for solar power (unwittingly unleashing a much better zinger than his "Version 17" effort).

"One of the issues with power-over-Ethernet is that there's a lot of line loss over a hundred feet," Bailey says. "If there's a way to provide local power it's worth looking at."

For the hotspot providers, wireless backhaul could actually prove to be very useful when setting up remote access points. Bandspeed's Skafidas [skiddlyatdidoo!] says that one possible configuration for backhaul purposes is to use an 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) access point with a microwave antenna to transmit signal over long distances to other access points.

Meanwhile, Vivato Inc. says that wireless ISPs (WISPs) could use the mesh network capabilities in its dining-room-table-sized outdoor switch to provide backhaul.

"I think the harder problem than power is backhaul," contends Ken Biba, CEO of the San Francisco-based startup.

Biba says that his system could set up using little clusters of four of the switches to bounce signal between each box over tens of kilometers. This "inline backhaul" uses the 25 decibels of signal gain built into the Vivato system to bounce signals over such distances.

However, as Biba notes, using inline backhaul lessens the wireless bandwidth that can be delivered to the end user, because the switch is essentially performing double duty, passing signal to the user and other switches. In addition, one of the switches in a cluster would need a high-capacity wired connection, something like a T3 line, Biba says. However, using the cluster method enables a WISP to set up services faster than before.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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