Conventions: The MIMO Frontier?

As anyone who's been to a major technology convention recently knows, providing wireless access at a convention center can be tough going. Organizers never know exactly how many WiFi users will log onto the network at any given time, which can lead to some major access challenges for these large-scale 802.11 deployments.

The result: With thousands attempting to connect and lots of random WiFi access points and devices in range it can prove to be difficult or at times impossible to get a stable WLAN hookup. (See Open Spectrum Faces Clogging, N+I: Noise Report, and We're All Experts Here.)

Ron Shaul, director of technology development at network operator Smart City Networks, which is based out of Las Vegas and serves big-city convention centers, is well aware of the hurdles inherent in providing radio-based network access for hundreds or thousands of simultaneous users. "Scalability and interference -- they're the major problems," he says.

Shaul has been working with enterprise wireless LAN vendor Bluesocket Inc. since February of this year on installing the firm's BlueSecure 5000 controllers at some of its major sites, including centers in Las Vegas, Orange County, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. Shaul is hoping to have 26 of the Bluesocket boxes in by the year's end. The controllers oversee a network of thousands of 1200 series access points from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO).

The BlueSecure infrastructure manages user authentication and controls Internet bandwidth availablity and usage for event attendees. "We had 4,500 simultaneous users on the network at the Cisco Networkers Show" at the Las Vegas Convention Center, says Shaul, who declares himself happy with the performance of the Bluesocket boxes.

With ever-increasing numbers of WiFi networks and devices out there, however, the battle to ensure good connectivity is never-ending. Shaul says that Smart City plans to evaluate Bluesocket's multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) access points to see if this new wave of WiFi technology can help with the specific requirements of convention center deployments. (See Bluesocket's Performance Play.)

"We're hoping to do it in the first quarter of next year, a two or three month trial at one of our smaller sites," says Shaul. "If it's something that works in our environment then we'll deploy it."

Shaul is hoping that the multiple data transmissions enabled by MIMO chipsets will help to stem WiFi multipath delay problems caused by signals bouncing off booths and other obstacles in the exhibit halls of a convention center.

MIMO, however, could bring problems of its own -- early reports on the technology have suggested that the radio signals produced by the newer WiFi APs can overwhelm older, single-channel 802.11 networks, bringing a whole new set of connectivity issues to the party.

Shaul is aware of this potential MIMO setback. "That's why we really need to work with Bluesocket on this," he says.

In the meantime, Shaul is hoping to address interference issues over the next 12 to 18 months by installing more 802.11a radios in its networks. 802.11a runs on a different frequency from 802.11b/g -- 5GHz rather than the increasingly crowded 2.4GHz band -- and has more channels and lower power output.

"There's very little interference," says Shaul. "Unfortunately many users do not have a/b/g cards yet."

Shaul says that Smart City had been using Nomadix Inc. gear before the Bluesocket update and looked at equipment from Cisco and others when decided on its new controllers.

He won't reveal how much the overall deployment will cost, but says that Smart City got a "nice discount" on list price for the controllers. Bluesocket says that the 5000 line lists for $24,995 a pop.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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