Dark Horse Spans Offices with 802.11g

By Eric Griffith

April 18, 2003

The latest hero at publisher Dark Horse Comics turns out to be 802.11g, but not for its LAN applications. In this case, it's all about the bridge.

Portland, Ore., has been vying for the title of "Most Unwired City" in the United States for a while, as it quickly embraces public access wireless. It was even ranked number one in such a study funded by Intel, which took into account Wi-Fi hotspots, cellular coverage, and total Internet access penetration.

Portland, or more specifically its suburb of Milwaukie, is also home to the fourth biggest comic book publishing company in America, Dark Horse Comics.

Unlike the big guys, Marvel and DC Comics, Dark Horse doesn't concentrate on flooding the market with only spandex-clad superhero adventures. For close to 20 years the company's graphic literature has featured some of the best horror, science fiction, humor and action characters in the industry. They were responsible for creating The Mask (and publisher Mike Richardson was a producer on the 1994 film version of "The Mask" that made Jim Carrey a household name), and currently produce books based on licenses from "Star Wars," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the rock band KISS, "Aliens," and much more. Their original publications include such diverse characters as the bizarre Flaming Carrot, the master criminal Grendel, the thoughtful Concrete, and the adventures of the world's greatest paranormal investigator known as Hellboy -- a character that will also be in a major motion picture of his own in 2004. They also run comic shops, an online store, and more.

All that didn't make it any easier for the company when they expanded into space across the street from their main office. For that, they needed wireless. Lucky for Dark Horse, they're in the Most Unwired City.

Voice over IP

Dark Horse doesn't actually have a wireless LAN yet -- they're a few months from that, according to company IS Technician Shawn Welter.

What they do have are offices spread around four blocks in the Milwaukie downtown area. Six months ago, throughout all their offices, they replaced their "ancient PBX," ran Cat5e Ethernet cable to almost all corners of their existing buildings, and now have a voice over IP (VoIP) phone system Mitel 5020 IP Phones, for 80 to 85 employees. These phones are also not wireless.

But use of the phones seemed not to be in the cards for the new space Dark Horse was expanding into across the street from their headquarters.

"The infrastructure in this town, this suburb of Portland, is kind of poor," Welter says. "We've been able to pull fiber to the north, but not the west." The connection to the new location, which houses about 20 employees, not only had to support data and voice traffic for the network, but also had to be inexpensive, since use of the space could end up being temporary. Digging up the busy street to lay a cable was certainly not an option.

So Welter went online looking for a solution.

The Personal Telco Connection

Nigel Ballard is a proponent of wireless through his JoeJava.com site and does WLAN deployments professionally as the director of Wireless for Matrix Networks -- the company that hooked up Dark Horse with its VoIP phone systems.

Ballard is also on the board of advisors for the Personal Telco Project, the community Wi-Fi group looking to provide free public access to Wi-Fi users in Portland. In his day job, Ballard had just had the opportunity to play with two Buffalo Technology AirStation 54Mbps Broadband Router APs (Model: WBR-G54), which use the draft standard for 2.4GHz 802.11g.

Somewhat unique to these routers is support for wireless distribution system (WDS), which basically lets two WBR-G54s connect as a direct point-to-point bridge to each other using their MAC addresses. (Buffalo says they're also coming out with a standalone product that's just a bridge alone, but it'll only cost about $10 less than the $199 WBR-G54).

After trying the bridge function and getting what he considered great results, Ballard posted a note about it to the Personal Telco Web site. That just happened to be where Shawn Welter was looking for a wireless solution to his bridging problem.

"In an hour we were trying to contact each other with the same solution," says Welter. "It's a stop gap instead of spending a lot of money and can later be repurposed for other things."

Bridging the Gap

The deployment of the bridge took place quickly, over the course of a week in March. Because the Dark Horse phone system was VoIP, the connection between the buildings didn't need to handle anything but IP traffic, which the Buffalo routers would handle with speeds of 54Mbps (more like 14Mbps in real world, but still more than enough to handle the voice traffic in the new location).

Each G54 is "like a shoe box -- one is on each side of the road," Ballard says. "You put the Ethernet cable from the network on each side into each shoe box. Both then form an invisible RF bridge over the road. It's like slinging an Ethernet cable over the road."

The hardest part of the installation involved the outdoor antennas -- on one side of the street the mounted antenna had a cable going back to the "shoe box" through wood, but the new location required drilling though concrete. The highly directional antennas were mounted and angled to point at each other -- that was pretty much it.

Welter says there was a short transition period as people got used to the connection, but so far the speed has been more than adequate to handle voice traffic and data from the location across the street.

"The Mitel phone system doesn't need heavy bandwidth -- it needs low latency and zero packet loss. If it can't reassemble the packets, you get glitches in the conversation.

"I don't know what throughput I should be expecting," he says, but "we're getting better than 802.11b. It's definitely faster." The numbers in his tests are consistently in the 12 to 14Mbps range. It's possible that the speed could go up with the 802.11g specification is finalized later this year and necessary upgrades are performed

Ballard says the model would be easy to replicate, but admits that 802.11g wouldn't be the right technology for going a longer distance and points to Redline Communications, a provider of fixed wireless connection equipment, as an alternative; he calls them "the Cadillac of wireless, but expensive."

Luckily, because of the short distance involved, the cheaper 54g routers seem to have done the trick for Dark Horse.

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