BelAir Embraces Cellular

By Eric Griffith

February 13, 2006

The equipment provider’s latest product offers cellular connections where towers can’t reach, using mesh backhaul.

Mesh isn’t just for Wi-Fi. At least, that’s what BelAir Networks seems to be saying with its latest equipment upgrades. The Kanata, Ontario-based company today began to offer cellular network support — both by linking products to cellular carriers’ base stations and through direct integration of cellular GSM/GPRS base stations into the multi-radio BelAir 200 hardware.

“Both announcements really focus on cellular backhaul, the means of delivering low-cost, high-reliability backhaul for cellular networks,” says Stephen Rayment, the CTO and co-founder of BelAir. “We’re adapting and evolving the architecture and features to actually become part of the cellular industry, initially with our backhaul solutions.”

Previously announced add-ons hook BelAir equipment to networks run by Multiple System Operators (MSOs) and cable operators.

Mobile providers/carriers with existing GSM or 3G base stations, either microcell or picocell, can plug in directly to the BelAir 200 using a new T1/E1 Circuit Emulation Module (CEM). Thus the units can be used to quickly interconnect all the cell base stations; there’s no need for leased lines for backhaul. BelAir cites industry analyst reports saying that leased lines can make up 24 percent of a carrier’s costs.

“We don’t have to mesh the connection [for base stations],” says Rayment. “If all you want is to not have to trench a line across a street, set up two BelAir 200s and run the T1 on one side with a point-to-point connection across the street.”

The CEM will take up to four circuits and convert data to IP traffic used in a mesh or star topology to get to the other end of the connection or network. Rayment says that in tests, the equipment worked with no degradation on a multi-hop mesh with up to eight T1 lines coming in.

Things move slower in the cellular world than they do in municipal and enterprise Wi-Fi. Rayment calls the testing of the equipment, under way now with one unnamed carrier, as “step-by-step and methodical.” However, he says others can also order it now.

For carriers who don’t have existing base stations, the BelAir 200 will soon integrate picocells, specifically the nanoBTS from UK company ip.access.  This is BelAir’s first partnership putting someone else’s hardware inside of a BelAir product.

“It’s their tech, their modules, integrated into the physical, thermal, and electrical system inside the BelAir 200,” says Rayment. With it all on one pole outside, you plug it in and turn it on to get it running — a cellular access network that talks via a mesh. “Pop these beauties on poles in an urban center, wherever there are complaining customers —  in a surgical strike fashion, you address the problem.”

“We’re not using cellular to do the actual backhaul —it’s still 5 GHz for backhaul, like with the Wi-Fi,” notes Rayment. “The cellular is only on the access side, for client devices.”

Does this signal a move for BelAir away from Wi-Fi? Rayment says no. “We won’t go away from Wi-Fi mesh,” he says. “We’re on the bandwagon of multi-service. I hate the word convergence, but we can do Wi-Fi, cellular, backhaul, and we converge it all in one product portfolio.” Incidentally, he points out that carriers using their products with the ip.access picocells integrated will still find the units have integrated 802.11b/g Wi-Fi modules — so they can bathe the same streets that are getting GSM with Wi-Fi signals as well.

Versions of the BelAir 200 with the CEM and with the ip.access nanoBTS integrated will be on display this week at the 3GSM World Congress show in Barcelona, Spain.



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