Muni Wi-Fi 2.0?

By Gerry Blackwell

November 16, 2009

Ruckus Wireless launches a new broadband access solution for a new market (hint: no free lunch).

WiMAX? Who needs WiMAX? Ruckus Wireless thinks the time is right to take another kick at the metro Wi-Fi can.

Ruckus today officially launched its Wi-Fi Broadband Access (WBA) solution, a suite of products that gives fixed wireless broadband operators everything they need to quickly and cost-effectively build neighborhood hot zones in areas where WiMAX is too expensive to deploy given population densities and potential revenues.

“We’re really jazzed about this story,” says Steven Glapa, Ruckus’s director of business development for wireless broadband access. “It’s a combination of the right technology, delivering a brand-new cost structure in a market that is really hungry for this.”

The company claims operators can implement WBA for as little as one-fifth the cost of a comparable WiMAX network because infrastructure is installable by more affordable “unskilled” labor and does not require expensive tower sites or licensed spectrum. Cost per megabit can be as little as 1/30th of what it is with WiMAX, Ruckus says.

The WBA solution comprises mostly existing products—both 11n and 11g—that incorporate Ruckus’s smart antenna, software-based beamforming and mesh networking technologies.

The suite also includes a new point-to-point product, the ZoneFlex 7731, for backhauling traffic from neighborhood networks to wired Internet POPs, and enhanced capabilities in its MediaFlex network management system.

“Lots of vendors are doing pieces of this,” Glapa says. “But our customers were reporting frustration that nobody had tied all these pieces together in an end-to-end solution.”

The WBA solution is designed to support a build-as-you-grow business model that is already proving itself in emerging markets. The company worked with two far east customers that had come to it looking for an alternative to WiMAX—Tikona Digital Networks in India and WiNet Technology in Malaysia. Both are now rolling out commercial service using WBA.

Tikona has installed about 5,000 access points, mostly in suburban Mumbai, and signed up tens of thousands of subscribers for service at up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps). WiNet is at an earlier stage.

More recently, Ruckus has begun working with regional CLECs in the U.S., companies such as Pavlov Media in Champaign, Illinois and Big Wireless in York, Pennsylvania that face similar economics. It also has customers in Latin America looking to use the WBA solution to deliver triple-play (Internet/phone/TV) services.

“So [the story] is not just about a bunch of products,” Glapa says. “It’s the products, plus the engagements [with operators], especially the guys in the U.S.”

In developing WBA, Ruckus says it brought to bear all the technology and learning from its two other principal application markets: mid-tier enterprise LANs and in-home distribution of signals for IPTV operators.

Ruckus developed its mesh networking technology for the enterprise market. It claims it works more efficiently and at lower cost than solutions from mesh networking market leaders, such as Cisco and BelAir Networks.

The mesh technology in turn rests on the smart antenna and beamforming technologies that Ruckus originally developed for the IPTV market where it had to make Wi-Fi as reliable as wireline for moving high-bitrate signals around the homes of subscribers. Today, the company supplies 100 IPTV operators worldwide.

Ruckus, like other vendors with smart antenna approaches, uses multiple antennas at each end point. “Essentially, the more antennas, the better the system performs in terms range and data rate,” Glapa explains.

Multi-antenna approaches can add complexity, but Ruckus has eliminated most of that complexity by building antennas into access points--from 12 to 19 in each. Installers do not require extensive RF expertise to aim or tune the devices, he points out.

Smart antenna technology allows the APs to make very efficient use of available wireless capacity and to effectively ignore interference from APs outside the network, Glapa says. It’s one of the keys to making Wi-Fi work reliably in unlicensed spectrum, in public broadband access environments.

“If your antennas are smart enough,” he says. “You can get the same kind of reliability you see in licensed spectrum.”

In Mumbai, where Tikona is mostly serving neighborhood clusters of high-rise apartment buildings, the company installs Ruckus access points on poles sticking out from the sides of buildings near the top and points them down at a 30-degree angle.

For subscribers on the upper floors, the Wi-Fi adapters in their laptops are all they need to connect to the network. Those living on lower floors need a Ruckus CPE unit that incorporates the smart antenna technology to connect reliably.

Ruckus concedes that Wi-Fi has a legacy of failure in municipal broadband access markets, but claims not to be worried by it.

“Sometimes, it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese,” Glapa quips. “In all seriousness, if we were trying to do this a year or 18 months ago when [the failures] were still really fresh, that might have been a problem. But not now.”

Besides, despite the “superficial” similarities in the technology used in earlier failed attempts at muni-Wi-Fi—mesh networking, smart antennas—the application here is quite different, he points out. Operators are not looking to use WBA to cover large swaths of an urban area to provide free access.

“The business models that our U.S. and international customers are implementing are about putting service where you can reach people who are willing to pay you money for service,” he says. “It’s quite different. There is an incredibly simple power to that.”

Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet and other Internet.com sites.

Originally published on .

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