Relieving Overburdened 3G, Ruckus Rolls Out Smart Wi-Fi

By Lisa Phifer

October 18, 2010

Carrier-grade edge/backhaul Wi-Fi gear to help mobile network operators embrace 802.11 as a scalable, reliable, manageable service delivery platform.

Mobile network operators have long had a love-hate relationship with 802.11 wireless. Some feared revenue siphoning by Wi-Fi hotspots; others looked to Wi-Fi for 3G offload but were troubled by lack of control over unlicensed spectrum. But Ruckus Wireless believes that carriers are now starting to think differently about Wi-Fi - and have pounced upon this opportunity with a new suite of carrier-grade 802.11 products.

"All of the operators are getting creamed by over-the-top services," said Steven Glapa, Senior Director of Field Marketing at Ruckus. "Mobile device evolution and growing traffic problems are making it ever more clear to carriers that they need to use the right tool for the right job. LTE is well suited for highly-mobile users, but not small high-density wireless cells. Carriers are realizing that Wi-Fi can be a strategic weapon [to fill this need], not just a band aid."

Not your father's Wi-Fi

The challenge here is that many carriers do not consider 802.11 products designed for residential or even enterprise deployment suitable for commercial wireless service delivery on a grand scale. To meet carrier requirements for high bandwidth, real-time service-level control, and cost-effective scalability in RF-hostile outdoor environments, Ruckus leveraged its experience in the wide-area Wi-Fi service market to expand its portfolio.

  • The ZoneFlex 7731 ($1,199) is a new outdoor point-to-multipoint 5 GHz 802.11n wireless high-speed backhaul bridge. Up to 5 bridges can be deployed with up to 30 degrees apart, with single-hop throughput ranging from 60 Mbps at 12 kilometers to 180 Mbps at 1 kilometer. This bridge is designed for carriers that deploy low density wireless broadband access or for small 3G cell backhaul.
  • The ZoneFlex 7762-S ($1,999) is a new outdoor mesh 802.11n AP with a 120 degree "Smart-Sector" antenna designed to deliver 10 dB signal gain over horizontal coverage areas. For example, a carrier might use the ZF7762-S to deliver first-mile access in venues where Wi-Fi needs to reach rooftop customer premises equipment (CPE) throughout a serving area.
  • The MediaFlex 7200 (from $99) is a new series of inexpensive 2.4 GHz 802.11n CPE designed to pair well with the ZF 7762-S. Available in three models (indoor/outdoor, internal/external antennas), the ZF7200 can be mounted on a pole or wall to be used as a remotely-managed, two-SSID residential bridge or router.
  • Carriers can manage all of these products from a central location using the FlexMaster 9.0 (from $5,000), which Ruckus claims is capable of handling tens of thousands of Smart Wi-Fi network elements and hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi clients. Features of special interest to carriers include capacity planning, SLA visibility, efficient single-dashboard drill-down trouble-shooting, and compliance reporting.

Carrier-class 802.11

These new products, available immediately, are designed to help carriers use Wi-Fi to tap service delivery opportunities, from triple-play residential services and 3G offload to first/last mile access in developing markets and managed enterprise WLANs. However, according to Glapa, carriers can't tolerate uncertainty and unlicensed spectrum makes them nervous. "They absolutely must have interference management to deliver reliable services in concrete canyons, and our adaptive antennas are ideal for this."

But carriers are not easily convinced, so Ruckus ran competitive tests to produce some compelling evidence. The company created a high-interference live test environment consisting of 191 APs in a 3,000 square meter facility to simulate the density of a metro-area like Manhattan.

When an iPhone 3G using Wi-Fi was faced with this interference, its average throughput dropped from 8.7 to 5.5 Mbps over Ruckus. "That's about 75 percent, which is not perfect, but it's pretty good when you consider that two other industry-leading APs dropped to 0.3 and 0.1 Mbps," said Glapa.

Seeing is believing, so Ruckus also intends to use customer case studies to convince potentially skeptical carriers. For example, Tikona has already deployed over 35,000 Ruckus mesh APs to deliver last-mile wireless broadband services throughout India, and plans to continue installing 1,000 new 802.11g APs on rooftops each week. Live network samples show that 80 percent of those APs are now delivering 5 Mbps or better last-mile service - despite running over a non-engineered, self-organized set of 2.4 GHz channels. Other large carrier case studies include Chilean CLEC STEL (metro-area wireless throughout Santiago) and US 4G ISP Towerstream (3G backhaul throughout Manhattan).

Many high-profile metro-area Wi-Fi projects have failed in the past. But times are changing, and 3G/4G bandwidth is increasingly scarce and expensive. Only time will tell whether carriers really are ready to rethink their relationship with Wi-Fi. But if Ruckus is right, these new carrier-grade Wi-Fi products should fare well - highly scalable, competitively priced, and attractive total cost of ownership relative to average revenue per use (ARPU).

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies, including 802.11 wireless devices and mobility services. Before joining Core Competence, Lisa developed operations support systems used by U.S. carriers to manage ATM networks delivering residential and business video services.

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