Carpe Diem: BelAir Seizes New Opportunities in Muni Wi-Fi

By Amy Mayer

February 28, 2008

As muni Wi-Fi solutions that address security, public safety, disaster recovery, and military (or homeland security) applications are becoming more sought-after than cheap, public access, BelAir Networks is gaining ground.

As muni Wi-Fi solutions that address security, public safety, disaster recovery, and military (or homeland security) applications are becoming more sought-after than cheap, public access, BelAir Networks is gaining ground.

"I think the muni Wi-Fi network has morphed," says BelAir co-founder and chief technology officer Stephen Rayment. He's referring to increasing demands for high-performance hardware to support video and large data files, rather than lower-scale systems that prioritized public Internet access. When the company was founded in 2001, he says, its multi-radio nodes and rugged designs landed outside the price range of many prospective customers. But, as people have re-conceived what a Wi-Fi deployment can provide, BelAir's products have gained a new audience.

"We think that the flavor of the market has changed and it's changed in a way that is an even better suit for us," Rayment says. Once quick, cheap solutions reigned, he says, and "we kind of purposely stayed clear of those."

Simply providing wireless Internet access for the public, for example, has never been BelAir's interest.

"We've focused more on those kind of municipal networks that emphasize public works and public safety more," he says, such as the one in Minneapolis. But now as networks are conceived and planned, people are intrigued by an expanding array of possibilities.

"It's a continuing trend to take that Wi-Fi to more and more places that you didn’t expect it to be."

For BelAir, some of those places are military installations. It recently announced a deployment at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in Charleston, South Carolina. The wireless peer connection system allows ship to shore communication from one kilometer offshore. Eventually, Rayment says ship-to-ship communication is likely. Other military applications include base housing, disaster recovery, and special events. To provide the kind of security the military requires, Rayment says BelAir has introduced new products including the BelAir 100D and 200D, which can support multiple-input multiple-output antenna technology. They also support BelAir's new Military Radio Module, which is designed to operate on the 4.4Ghz band allocated to US and NATO military applications.

These new products use 802.11n technology and Rayment says of the Military Radio Module, "that is the industry's first 802.11n mesh product."

Rayment says BelAir hardware has always been built with physical robustness in mind, "which has proven very important in these military applications." The company tests for response to salt spray, for example, as well as extreme cold and extreme heat.

Phil Belanger, an industry watcher with Novarum, says when BelAir first offered the ability to simultaneously support public access on the 2.9 GHz band and public safety on the 4.9 GHz band, many saw the option as an interesting infrastructure whose cost made it unattractive.

"They would not win deals because there was this perception that it could be done cheaper," Belanger says. But now that the widespread expectation is to have public access, public safety, disaster response, and more available on a Wi-Fi network, BelAir's time has come.

"Everybody's moving to this multi-radio thing," Belanger says, and BelAir's modular mix technologies allow a great deal of flexibility.

Rayment says even as BelAir continues to expand into the military and defense arenas, the company intends to grow its presence in local government deployments. And it's accepted that not everything has to be high-end.

"We can certainly do the low-cost solutions where that's appropriate," Rayment says, "but we've also got the scalable kind of architecture" that brings the high performance and low-latency BelAir has worked so hard at from the beginning.

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.



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