Muni Network Management: Learning from the Enterprise

By Greg Murphy

November 28, 2006

A WLAN management software maker says cities must have a plan to control their networks and can learn a lot from businesses.

For the past year, it seems that not a week goes by without another city launching or announcing plans to deploy a municipal wireless network. Municipal wireless networks are cropping up in cities both large and small for several reasons, including economic development, better, more efficient communication among government and emergency personnel, and the promise to bridge the digital divide. As these wireless networks have surfaced, so have many hotly debated questions concerning the muni wireless industry.

Will the business model ever work? How much is it going to cost to achieve the desired coverage? Will people actually use it? What sort of ROI can be expected?

Four years ago, enterprises and other large organizations were asking exactly the same questions about indoor Wi-Fi. As more and more of their users starting connecting to the wireless network, enterprise IT staff members quickly learned that there was another, equally important question they should be asking: “How are we going to manage the network we’ve built?”

Gartner reports that wireless network management is the #2 concern regarding the adoption of wireless LANs in the enterprise, behind security, but ahead of cost, interference from other wireless networks, limited bandwidth, interoperability of products, and other issues (according to Gartner – User Survey Report: Wireless LANs, North America and Europe, authored by Rachna Ahlawat, Christian Canales, published on May 26, 2006).

 Yet, with all the debate over municipal wireless networks, people rarely stop to ask how these municipal wireless networks will be managed and who will be responsible for supporting the end users.

The challenge of managing a municipal wireless network will be even greater than that of managing a corporate Wi-Fi network. In most corporations, a large percentage of the wireless users are concentrated on a few campuses and large buildings, often with local IT desktop support personnel to diagnose and resolve user problems. In a municipal network, the users are distributed in hundreds or thousands of remote locations without any local support. Even worse, since muni networks will cover a combination of residential and small business locations, many of these users will be networking novices who require a significant amount of technical support.

Who are users going to call for this support? Whoever they are paying for the service. And the more they are paying -- and the more they come to rely on the service -- the more insistent they are going to be in demanding reliability and good customer support.

Without a sophisticated management system that allows the Support Desk to efficiently and remotely diagnose and troubleshoot end-user problems, support costs will swamp the network operator and kill virtually any economic model.

At AirWave Wireless, we learned this the hard way back in 2000, when we operated a for-pay Wi-Fi hotspot business in the San Francisco Bay Area. Without management tools, every time a user called to report a problem, we had to dispatch a technician to the local site — at a cost of several hundred dollars — to determine whether the problem really was a network issue or whether the user had simply mis-configured his laptop or neglected to enable his Wi-Fi radio.

To reduce costs, we needed remote management tools that provided remote, real-time visibility and control. At the time, these tools did not exist, so we started to build them for ourselves – and ultimately changed the entire focus of our company to developing management solutions for wireless network operators.

Based on that experience, here are four key issues that muni wireless operators (and those issuing RFPs for municipal networks) need to address:

Ease of Use. As municipal networks grow, operators will not be able to afford to have highly skilled wireless network engineers answering the phone and responding to emails every time a user has a problem. For Help Desk staff to assume more of the user support load, they need easy-to-use management solutions that enable them to quickly find a user on the network and determine whether the problem appears to be a user issue or a broader network problem that needs to be escalated to an engineer. Complicated management applications designed for network engineers are part of the problem, not the solution.

Visibility across the entire wireless network. Most municipal networks today employ a mesh architecture, using Wi-Fi to deliver connectivity to the end user. If a user reports that the network is “slow,” the Network Operations staff needs to be able to monitor the user’s local link as well as all mesh links to determine where the problem is really occurring. This means the wireless management solution must support traditional Wi-Fi access points and well as mesh devices from a single console.

Centralized Control and Scalability. A growing number of areas across the nation are in the process of blanketing their entire cities with wireless nodes from border-to-border. Even modest-sized municipal wireless networks will have hundreds or thousands of wireless nodes, and large networks will have tens of thousands. In order to survive, network operators need one single console from which to manage the entire network, no matter how large it grows. “Home-grown” management solutions and scripts that may suffice for the first few installations will not work as the size and usage load of the network grow.

Multi-Vendor and Legacy Hardware Support. When a network operator installs wireless hardware on a lamp post or other location, that device typically needs to last for several years in order to recover its investment and achieve profitability. Yet, the mesh industry is still young and product innovation is continuing at a rapid rate – which means that the products and technology that operators are using to extend their networks two years from now will likely be very different than what they use today. It will be critical for operators concerned about maximizing the useful life of their infrastructure to implement management solutions with support for multiple hardware vendors and a history of support for legacy products.

In the enterprise market, many organizations came late to the realization that management would be the key to controlling wireless support costs. The municipal wireless industry will not have the luxury of time to learn this lesson. In the corporate office, a user typically cannot take his business elsewhere and find an alternate provider. In the municipal wireless space, there is more competition from entrenched players. Customer support and reliability will be critical factors in determining which providers users turn to for their connectivity needs. If management is not built into the operator’s business model and operational plan, one of two things will happen: (1) support costs will swamp the operator or (2) users will become dissatisfied with support and seek other alternatives.

The case study model from enterprise deployments is in place. And, already test runs on muni wireless networks have been turned down due to a lack of adoption or increased costs associated with managing the network. In order to avoid future network failures and to ensure the ongoing success of municipalities seeking to provide wireless Internet for not only its government and local business users, but also to help close the digital divide, it is critical to meet that expanded coverage with the ability to support a more diverse range of constituent network support needs.

As enterprise network users have shown us, network operators, especially on the municipal level, must have plans in place to provide adequate and cost-effective service and user support. With the proper network management tools in place, original goals – whether it’s obtaining a return on the investment, creating an eGovernment, or closing the digital divide – will remain within reach.

Greg Murphy is the chief operating officer at AirWave.

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