Rio Rancho: Citywide VoWi-Fi

By Gerry Blackwell

July 21, 2005

The first voice over Wi-Fi network for an entire town is up and running in New Mexico. Part One of our look at Rio Rancho examines the hiccups of modern Wi-Fi handsets.

Wireless ISP Azulstar Networks (formerly Ottawa Wireless) has scored another first – the first U.S. city to offer metro-wide voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) service. The city is Rio Rancho, New Mexico, with a population of about 65,000. It’s home to Intel’s largest manufacturing facility, as well as other high-tech companies.

Last year Azulstar lit up the much smaller city of Grand Haven, Michigan, population 12,000 – the first with a metro-wide Wi-Fi network – but has not yet launched voice service there.

The Rio Rancho network, developed in partnership with the municipality but owned and managed by Azulstar, currently covers 80% of the city and will reach 95% coverage by mid-August. The company offers Vonage-style fixed VoIP service to residential and small business customers using its Wi-Fi network, but will also support customers using wireless SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) phones – even when traveling at up to 55 miles per hour. The voice services are offered in partnership with Ecuity Advanced Communications.

Azulstar launched service, including the phone service, in early May. It currently has about 300 paying Internet access customers and expects to have 1,000 to 1,500 by year end. About 40 customers are currently using the phone service, although they’re not paying because there are still problems with it. The company hopes to have about 300 paying phone customers by the end of the year. “That would be success for us,” says Azulstar founder and CEO Tyler Van Houwelingen.

The phone service for the most part works fine in fixed mode. “We’ve been confident enough to run our company on it for quite a while now,” says Van Houwelingen. However, he admits it’s “not flawless yet, we’re  still getting the bugs out.” Mobile telephony is particularly problematic, although Van Houwelingen says the main problem there is the unavailability of adequate Wi-Fi phones.

The all-wireless Rio Rancho network uses pre-WiMAX equipment from Proxim for the backbone and for business access, and access points and other infrastructure equipment from Meru Networks for residential and outdoor access. Azulstar says it chose Meru because of its superior VoWi-Fi capabilities.

“We want [the network] to be a showcase for voice,” Van Houwelingen says. “We want voice to be the killer app here. And Meru is head and shoulders above other vendors for that kind of application.”

With most Wi-Fi network gear, mobile devices lose signal for 100 to 500 milliseconds (ms) when moving from one cell or access point to the next. This doesn’t pose a problem when surfing the Web or receiving e-mail, but it does cause interruptions to voice calls and even dropped calls. The Meru equipment can do handoffs in as little as 3 milliseconds (ms), Van Houwelingen says. It also has built-in quality of service (QoS) features that other Wi-Fi equipment does not.

Handset Issues

The problems with mobile telephony have partly to do with the fact that the network doesn’t quite provide 100% outdoor coverage yet and the Wi-Fi SIP handsets available aren’t really powerful enough to bridge the gaps.

“The challenge we’re facing right now is that Wi-Fi phones are still being made mostly for indoor use,” Van Houwelingen says.

Azulstar has tested the network’s ability to support mobile voice by using a residential-style VoIP gateway and residential-style wireless modem with a wired phone in a car – an obviously impractical but much higher-powered solution. “There it works extremely well,” he says. “In fact it’s surprising how well it works. It surpasses the cellular network. But as soon as you go to handsets, there are problems.”

One of the phones the company is currently selling is the IP5000 from Hitachi. Azulstar recently began testing firmware for the phone developed by a third-party vendor. The new firmware appears to boost performance.  “It’s basically a souped up Hitachi phone and it’s what we’re having the best results with so far,” Van Houwelingen says. “We’re hoping this is the one.”

As well as not working terribly well – at least for outdoor use – the available Wi-Fi phones are also expensive. The IP5000 sells for over $300.

Van Houwelingen believes the service will really only come into its own when dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular phones become available and service providers have the ability to automatically hand off calls between VoWi-Fi and cellular networks. Azulstar is already in discussions with handset vendors and mobile operators, he says. “This is where we think the value proposition [for our VoWi-Fi service] begins to go way up.”

Subscribers would only need one phone for home, office and mobile use, and if they moved into a dead spot in the Azulstar network, the phone would automatically switch them on to the cellular network without dropping the call.

Not that coverage dead spots will be a big problem within the city. Outdoor coverage will be “virtually” 100% when the network is complete later this summer, Van Houwelingen says. Even after that, there may be the odd dead spot, but the company will simply fill in coverage as subscribers demand it. The same goes for indoor subscribers, some of whom may not be able to get a strong signal until Azulstar installs additional access points.

“Unlike the cellular guys, we can add additional coverage for $1,000 or less,” Van Houwelingen points out. “It’s very simple for us to bolt it on. Coverage will get thicker and thicker – and I’m not talking in years, but in months.”

For more on the tricks and deals Azulstar is using to deploy and run it's VoWi-Fi city wide, check out  part two.



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