To Wire or Not to Wire

To Wire or Not to Wire

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Gerry Blackwell

February 24, 2005

One Canadian power company is experimenting with both wireless mesh and with broadband over powerline—and despite the business’s background, wireless seems to be winning.

Given its power utility heritage, you’d think Telecom Ottawa would be more excited about its recent success with indoor broadband over powerline (BPL) technology than with its Wi-Fi initiatives. BPL uses existing electrical wiring in a building to carry broadband signals.

Not so, though. Chief operating officer Dave Dobbin is much more interested in talking about a Wi-Fi hot zone Telecom Ottawa built in the Canadian capital’s city center. The company’s Wireless Zone service recently went commercial. It uses some intriguing approaches to distribution.

A spin-off from Hydro Ottawa, the local power utility, Telecom Ottawa’s main stock in trade is its all-fiber 4.8 terabit per second switched Ethernet network, which it uses to offer enterprise and SMB broadband services in the Ottawa region. With BPL and Wi-Fi, it’s looking to diversify and find new ways to serve customers.

Last year, the company installed an award-winning BPL Internet access system at a Ramada Inn in Cornwall, a small city 75 miles south of Ottawa. At the same time, it was building the Wi-Fi hot zone, which now covers about a quarter of Ottawa’s downtown. It launched commercial service in the zone in December. Telecom Ottawa used Wi-Fi mesh technology from BelAir Networks, a local firm, to build the network.

Could BPL—indoors or out—be a competitor for Wi-Fi, we wondered? In deference perhaps to his connections in the power utility industry, Dobbin is careful with his answer. It mainly comes down to economics, he explains. “Wi-Fi is seriously cheap. It would take selling millions of BPL units for it to get to the same place.” The implication is clear: BPL will never be that successful.

In the meantime, though, powerline networking technology is a useful alternative when Wi-Fi isn’t possible or desirable.

“It works in places where Wi-Fi gets too much interference, or where you can’t rewire or install antennas—such as in heritage buildings,” Dobbin says. “Or in buildings with cinder blocks, which play havoc with RF. It may also make sense where you need a little more security.”

BPL is more expensive, however. It’s slower—maximum throughput is 4 Mbps—and it doesn’t offer true mobility, though you can get a wired broadband connection wherever there’s a wall socket. As for outdoor BPL, running over utility power grids, something power companies in North America are currently testing and trialing, Dobbin doesn’t have high hopes. Again, it’s too expensive.

“We’re playing with it, hoping price comes down,” he says. “Who knows? But if it doesn’t take off in the U.S., it will probably always be too expensive.”

Telecom Ottawa embarked on both the Wi-Fi and BPL projects last year with a view to testing them for future application to filling customer needs. Both, so far, are one-of experiments, though new Wi-Fi initiatives are on the table, as are more BPL deployments.

The company has invested more in the Wi-Fi hot zone, and invested it perhaps more speculatively.

“Our original idea was, let’s see how the technology works for in-building coverage,” Dobbin explains. “So we put one in the Nepean Sportsplex, [a suburban recreation complex] with pools and ice pads, and a couple at City Hall. And it worked great.”

“Then we wanted to see how it would work in the wild, in a metro deployment, with units on poles in the cold, in the hot, in the slush. Let’s see how it survives, and how well the service is received.”

Telecom Ottawa started by deploying seven BelAir units along a several-block stretch of Elgin St., a commercial strip. They’re connected at one in to the company’s downtown fiber net. The BelAir units do not require a media converter, Dobbin notes. It was possible to plug directly in to a fiber node.

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One objective was to test the mesh capabilities of the BelAir units that allow them to link automatically. The technology was new at the time and there were a few glitches, he says, but BelAir was responsive and addressed and fixed all the problems as they come up. Eventually the network stabilized.

“So now the BelAir units are automatically deciding where traffic goes, they’re auto load balancing. Life is pretty good, everything is working well,” Dobbin says.

At this point, Telecom Ottawa began to extended the original Elgin St. deployment—eventually deploying 29 BelAir units and covering 15 blocks along Elgin and four blocks east and west to take in Somerset St. with its high-end hotels.

Other than at Somerset St., the lateral coverage from the main Elgin St. network varies. “In some places where we’ve got units deployed on poles, they’re going two city blocks out. In other cases, they’re barely going 100 meters,” Dobbin says.

In the hotel precinct, though, the company has engineered the network to ensure coverage throughout the hotel properties, including in all guest rooms. Telecom Ottawa’s approach to working with the hotels is interesting.

It has made agreements with seven of them to distribute the service to their guests. The hotels agree to buy Wireless Zone scratch cards at a bulk rate. Most sell to guests, setting their own rates. A few give the service away for free. Telecom Ottawa only begins charging the hotel when a guest logs on using the userid and password on the scratch card.

Outside the hotels, Telecom Ottawa is selling the service to any user willing to pay online with a credit card. It charges about $4 an hour, $8 a day or $24 a month.

One Somerset St. hotel was already offering Wi-Fi service, charging a somewhat exorbitant $12 a day. Now guests have a choice—the hotel’s own service or Telecom Ottawa’s. “They’re not too happy about it,” Dobbin says of the hotel’s response to the unexpected competition.

Response from users in the first 30 days of the commercial service—which included the Christmas break—has been “surprising” given that Telecom Ottawa has done nothing to promote it, he says. The only way people find out about it is by turning on their Wi-Fi-equipped laptop or PDA within the coverage area and seeing the Wireless Zone SSID come up in Windows XP.

“We’ve had a little fewer than 100 individual users buy subscriptions—for an hour, a day or a month. Some have bought multiple times. We’ve even got about 10 or so who have bought monthly service. For no marketing, that’s not bad,” Dobbin says.

The company is currently trying to interest area service providers in using the hot zone infrastructure to offer their own services. The BelAir technology allows Telecom Ottawa to set up multiple SSIDs on the same network.

“We’re saying, you can use all you can eat and we’ll charge a flat fee per day,” Dobbin says. “We’ve talked to major national carriers, local ISPs, a local Wi-Fi operator. We’ve had good interest but haven’t sold one yet.”

The company has considered offering fixed broadband service to businesses and residents within the coverage area, but likely won’t do that any time soon.

“We haven’t quite figured that one out yet,” he says. “802.11 is not the most reliable thing in the world. We’ve first got to figure out how to make it reliable enough so we can use it for that. For one thing, if we start selling this as DSL replacement, then we’re going to start running into [subscribers wanting to use it for] VoIP—and then you run into 911 issues.”

Despite his enthusiasm and obvious pride in the Wireless Zone, Dobbin makes clear that it remains an experiment—but one that he hints will very soon bear additional fruit. “Once we’re confident it works as we need it to work, then we’ll make a decision on where we’re going to take it,” he says.

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