Digital Middletown Project Underway

By Naomi Graychase

March 25, 2005

The quintessential small town of Muncie, Ind., is also the home of a research project that one vendor hopes will prove the need for wireless, multimedia-enabled broadband by homes and businesses everywhere.

In an attempt to determine the impact of high-definition content delivery on education and home life in America, wireless networking equipment manufacturer Proxim is providing the wireless backbone for a research project being conducted by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.

Muncie—dubbed "Middletown, U.S.A." in a groundbreaking sociological study published in 1924—is generally considered to be a perfect example of a typical American city. As a result, it has become the most studied city in America, and was, therefore, considered an ideal testing ground for this new wireless project.

Dubbed "Digital Middletown," the project involves three stages, the second of which was recently deployed. The first stage provided select individuals with high-bandwidth wireless access from their homes to the Internet and to Ball State University's systems, via Proxim's Tsunami point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access systems and point-to-point wireless Ethernet bridges.

The second stage connected two Muncie elementary schools to the university—over a distance of seven miles—using Proxim's Tsunami 100 Wireless Ethernet Bridge and Tsunami QuickBridge. The schools participating in the study received notebook computers, plasma screens and videoconferencing equipment, as well as wireless printers, speakers and access points, compliments of Gateway and Ball State. The schools can now access high-definition content, including 26,000 video clips owned by United Streaming (a Discovery Channel affiliate), and media files from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

Jeff Orr, Senior Product Marketing Manager for Proxim, says, "Most cities in America are like Muncie—they don't have a telecommunications structure that can deliver videoconferencing or other forms of media that require large capacities of bandwidth. One of the objectives of the project is to identify the correct infrastructure to deploy this type of project in any given town."

Proxim's Tsunami network provided the necessary bandwidth—20-30 Mbps—to support the addition of high-definition content and the everyday use of notebook computers by students and teachers at the two test schools. Today, students and faculty in those schools have high-speed access to the Internet, e-mail, and advanced learning applications that enable them to videoconference with experts and to conduct virtual field trips.

Proxim, which has been in business for 25 years and got its start developing military applications for the Department of Defense, was brought into the Digital Middletown project by one of its channel partners, local wireless integrator Wireless Information Networks, Inc. (WIN). WIN conducted the actual deployment of the network using Proxim's equipment.

Finding a vendor who could supply equipment to create a secure infrastructure that would transmit wirelessly over long distances was essential to Ball State and WIN, and Proxim fit the bill. "The Tsunami 100 and QuickBridge are both point-to-point radios," explains Orr. "They are microwave radios, designed to go between two defined locations and provide a high amount of IP capacity over many miles."

The third stage of the project will see Ball State expand its delivery of wireless connectivity and content to several hundred homes near one of the elementary schools to further test the impact of access to high-definition content on home users. Proxim was chosen for this phase as well, in part because expanding its network is relatively simple.

"Expanding the network for Phase 3 is very straightforward," says Orr. "We've put in a backbone link that would allow them to facilitate that growth in the future. That's the function that Tsunami provides... If they hadn't [planned for] Phase 3, those products probably would have been overkill, but the network was built out to deploy once for all the phases of their program. They've created a network they can very easily scale by adding subscriber stations where they already have multi-point stations. To reach into new markets, they can even add thousands of customers—or research targets—per base station."

"The equipment is mounted on limited-access rooftops or 300 feet up on the tops of towers, so there is a barrier to physical access," says Orr. "The question is, can someone intercept a signal, and if so, could they extract its content payload?"

Proxim says the signal is virtually impenetrable to hackers. According to Orr, "All of the radios used in this particular research are proprietary—not Wi-Fi. They have a very narrow beam width, so in order to physically intercept it, you would need to have a hot air balloon, and you'd need to know exactly what kind of radio you're intercepting.

"Even if you could intercept the signal, you'd then receive a password challenge. You'd have an unlimited number of tries, but you'd get a five minute timeout every time you failed. So it would take about six million years to crack. And even then, you'd still have to be able to decode the payload. At best, you could only get half the transmission."

The outcome of the study will not be published until the completion of Phase 3, which is just now getting underway. Orr expects that, among other things, the deployment of this network in this market will prove that there is a demand for multimedia, broadband delivery in homes and schools from one single carrier—which would certainly be a boon for Proxim.

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