'Cellular-style' networks catch on for campuses, small towns

August 28, 2006

4 Min Read
WiFi Gets High

As questions continue to arise about large-scale mesh WiFi deployments in big cities, the technoscenti have begun to ask: Is there a better way? (See Wireless Philly Loses Head.)

The answer is yes, according to Jerry Dix, chairman and CEO of 5G Wireless Communications Inc. (OTC: FGWC), which supplies "cellular-style" WiFi for outdoor and indoor networks.

"Our philosophy on cities is simple," explains Dix, a veteran of the prepaid cellular industry who joined 5G in 2002. "We don’t think mesh is the right technology for large-scale deployments. You look at a city such as Philadelphia, they're going to have something like 6500 access points. Who's going to manage that?"

The problem, says Dix, comes down to simple economics: "The capital expense [for a city-wide mesh network like Philadelphia] is a drop in the bucket compared to the opex that's going to create."

As it happens, 5G Wireless doesn't think its own technology is suitable for big-city networks either. Instead, the Marina del Rey, Calif.-based firm is concentrating on smaller towns, campuses, time-share condo developments, and Third-World deployments.

5G has supplied equipment for networks in Rockford, Ill., New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and Westminster, Calif. The company has also installed networks for several colleges including Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

"We looked at mesh networks, but at the time they tended to be more expensive and primarily used for outside deployments," says Gary Wenger, vice president of IT at the College of DuPage, where the 5G equipment is used to provide indoor coverage to buildings across the 273-acre campus. "We investigated deploying typical AP's, but determined it would take hundreds to provide the coverage we wanted. The cost to do the data cabling itself would have been enormous."

The problem with municipal mesh networks is that WiFi is a line-of-sight system originally designed for short-range, indoor networks. The addition of mesh nodes, which can transmit and receive signals from nearby nodes rather than being connected directly back to the primary signal source, allows WiFi to be extended to widespread coverage areas -- but only at the expense of dozens of access points per square mile.

5G Wireless's equipment, by contrast, is based on a technology designed for widespread deployment from the ground up -- way up, on top of cellular-style towers or rooftops. The lofty APs (each of which must have a backhaul connection to the primary network) give 5G nodes a much wider range than mesh nodes from companies like Tropos Networks Inc. and BelAir Networks Inc. -- up to five times wider, according to 5G vice president of engineering Carl Weisman. Based on the 802.11 "b" and "g" standards, 5G equipment runs on the 2.4GHz frequency, using 5.9GHz for backhaul.

"What most people don't realize in installing these networks is that the cost of the hardware is insignificant compared to the operating expense, which is directly related to the number of nodes on the network," Weisman points out. "They do maybe 36 per square mile. We're doing seven per square mile."

As with conventional cellular networks, 5G uses "microcells" to fill in coverage in dead zones.

5G is not the only company marketing cellular-style WiFi: At last April's CTIA show in Las Vegas, GO Networks launched what it calls "the industry’s first carrier-class cellular Wi-Fi system."

Based in Mountain View, Calif., GO, like 5G, offers a system with base stations mounted on roofs or towers and microcells to fill in coverage gaps. The difference is that GO touts its system as suitable for outdoor networks of any scale. 5G Wireless takes a more modest approach.

"In WiFi networks there are really only two variables," says Weisman. "One is coverage and one is capacity. In an enterprise environment, capacity is the driving factor. You need dense AP deployments, with lots of radios. That's where mesh makes sense.

"A timeshare development or a campus is very different. You might just have 100 people in the building, so you have low capacity needs and you want the best coverage for the least amount of money. Those are perfect deployments for us because it's a large area with low capacity requirements. You limit the amount of equipment, the number of cable pulls, the management headaches, and the number of things that can break."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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