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Get Yer Wireless Here

When North American Midway Entertainment LLC rolled its trucks into Toronto for the Canadian National Exhibition last month, among the first orders of business -- along with erecting the Ferris wheel, getting the cotton-candy machines running and making sure the carny games had plenty of stuffed animals -- was getting the wireless mesh network going for the fairground. In this case that proved to be a full-time four-day job for six workers.

In fact, the North American Midway technicians installed not just one temporary wireless network for the 18-day national fair, known as "the Ex," but three:
  • A primary point-of-sales system for transactions at the rides and games on the midway itself.

  • One outer loop for gate admission.

  • One internal network for the company's on-site offices.

Customized for NAM by Encino, Calif.-based systems integrator Affidia Systems, the network comprises infrastructure from Firetide Inc. , WiFi access points from ValuePoint, and handheld devices by Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL). For North American Midway, which runs carnivals at over 130 events a year, the Ex was the company's largest wireless deployment to date.

"The hardest part this year was the outer loop," says John Gallant, NAM's IT manager. "This was the very first time we'd put this system together, so I had to think of how I wanted to configure it, how we needed to deploy the nodes, check the gate areas for coverage, and so on. Normally we can go in put something up in a day for the entire site."

Carnival companies have been using wireless technology in one form or another for years -- NAM itself installed its first midway network, using equipment from 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS), in 2002 -- but the new system from Firetide represents an ambitious attempt to link all of the fairground's transactions into one seamless web.

"Our wireless network is designed to ease the customers' experience in the park, right from the moment you decide to visit the event," says Gallant. Fairgoers can purchase advance tickets online, print them out on plain white copier paper, convert that to a barcode-equipped card at the fairground ticket office, "deposit" money in an event account, and use the card at the rides and attractions on the midway. Cards can be recharged at ticket boxes scattered across the park.

Eventually, Gallant says, NAM will links food vendors, souvenir sellers, clothing outlets, and all other places to spend money into the same system. "The objective is to go to one central point and purchase what you'll need for the day, so that's the only time you need to go into your pocket and make a purchase all day."

With similar systems operating at big events like the Texas State Fair and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Firetide's mesh equipment is ideally suited to portable, temporary installations like carnivals because it's easy to set up and dismantle. Plus, as Firetide VP of marketing and communications Michael Downes explains, Firetide is not strictly a WiFi mesh provider: Firetide nodes do not carry an integrated access point. "Unlike our competitors, we're not focused on mesh as a delivery mechanism for WiFi," Downes says. "We see mesh as the infrastructure behind a variety of applications, including municipal WiFi." (See Case Study: Texas State Fair.)

Firetide nodes directly support Ethernet clients, the indoor nodes carrying four Ethernet ports and the outdoor two. That means customers like North American Midway's Gallant can deploy some of the mesh nodes with WiFi access points and others as Ethernet switches. NAM's indoor point-of-sales terminals use the Ethernet ports to feed sales data directly back to the server.

Total cost of the new Firetide/Symbol/Affidia system, says Gallant, was more than $1 million. NAM, he says, is leading the way as the carnival industry adopts wireless technology across its fairgrounds.

"Right now the eyes of the industry are on us," he adds. "They're watching and waiting with bated breath to see if this succeeds."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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