Wi-Fi Help for High-rises

By Eric Griffith

October 23, 2003

By combining cellular-type coverage with modularity 802.11 mesh products, BelAir Networks says it's got the solution to Internet backhaul coverage for high-rises and other oversized buildings.

LAS VEGAS -- The floor of the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2003 show at the Sands Convention center is not overflowing with news in the world of wireless LANs (its patrons mainly stem from the cellular network side). But those that are here are showcasing the convergence between these two areas of wireless. The biggest news comes from newly launched BelAir Networks of Reston, Va., which has announced what they call a "cellular LAN architecture."

Bernard Herscovich, president of BelAir, says his company has looked for a way to converge the wide-area coverage of cellular with the high-speed of Wi-Fi since its inception. In particular, they've been looking to stretch the Wi-Fi "up" -- covering top floors in larger buildings.

To do this, the company hit on using a point-to-point (P2P) mesh network that incorporates both the WLAN users and the backhaul; the Internet connection is made to just one BelAir access point, which then shares it with all the rest. This connection doesn't even have to enter the building as the BelAir products are designed to be mounted outside, surrounding a building in a "cloud" of radio frequency (RF) signals. This setup, says Herscovich, will let them cover upper floors -- they've tested it as high as the 31st floor of a building with units mounted on light poles outside and across the street -- and will reduce costs.

"Our goal isn't to lower the cost of each individual unit but to have the most cost-effective solution at the network level," he says. "In the end, we end up with the lowest cost network deployment by a factor of three." That's because they are able to install only a few products to get the same amount of coverage. The point-to-point mesh allows them to do a distance five times larger between nodes, he adds.

The individual products (they are launching with the BelAir 200) are modular, "hardened" for use outdoors, and have all the functions of a switch, router and gateway. Each product has at least two radios -- one for the standard access point functions that connect end users, and the others (a max of three) to form the long-distance P2P mesh using the ten integrated antennae. This backhaul started as simple 802.11a, but the company has made some proprietary enhancements to it to get the performance they needed. In the future, BelAir expects to offer backhaul modules that will use GSM, CDMA, and WiMax (802.16a). Each unit also has a wireline connector for 10/100 Ethernet to connect directly to the Internet backhaul. They expect to offer T1 connectors soon.

The company will offer a BelAir 100 unit sometime in 2004 that will be for indoor use, to extend the WLAN into areas the 200 may not be able to reach. The 100 would link back only to unites on the outside. Pricing for the 100 is not set, but the 200 they are announcing here will be around $2000 at the low end, and as high as $6000 depending on its features.

Pricy, yes, but Herscovich says the savings is in the lower number of products needed for coverage and the easy setup, preventing what he calls "the disruption factor. ... Many places, like hospitals, don't like to put equipment in buildings. There's access and aesthetic issues. But now you can do it outside."

Up, up, and away with WLAN then; the company is already experimenting to get BelAir products to cover floors higher than 31. "On higher venues, [we can] mesh units at street level with those on other buildings, on the top or sides, to extend into higher and higher areas."



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