Getting a fix on wireless

In Canada’s major metropolitan regions, businesses tend to take broadband for granted. Within the downtown cores of Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, fibre is plentiful and relatively cheap.

If you venture even a few miles from the downtown core though, say to Markham, Ontario, a bustling town of over 230,000 just north of Toronto, fibre becomes scarce and much more expensive. Often the only vendor selling fibre-based services outside the downtown core is the incumbent telecom provider – generally Bell Canada in the East and Telus in the West.

So what’s a firm outside the downtown core going to do if it wants an affordable, high-speed connection? Increasingly organziations have been turning to fixed wireless connections to solve their high speed woes, either getting the service through a provider, or setting it up on their own.

Unlike fibre, which requires a lot of expensive and time-consuming digging, fixed wireless can be set up quickly and relatively cheaply by installing radios on towers or tall buildings. Fixed wireless may not always meet the holy grail of 99.999 per cent availability of fibre-based service, but it’s reliable enough that even traditional telcos with extensive fibre-based networks are using the technology to serve businesses in areas outside their fibre networks.

Nowadays when people hear the word “wireless”, they think of WiFi or cellular phone networks. Fixed wireless doesn’t encompass either of these technologies. Instead, fixed wireless refers to high-speed wireless links that rely on a fixed receiver at the customer’s location and radios residing on tall structures to relay data back and forth between the customer location and the service provider network. Fixed wireless connections can vary considerably in speed, ranging from a 364Kbps home Internet connection to a T-3 network backbone service.

While fixed wireless may be growing, it’s still a very small part of the enterprise telecommunications picture, notes Brian Sharwood, an analyst with telecom consultancy The Seaboard Group. Companies often use fixed wireless as backup to a fibre-based service, he notes.

“There are some companies that have it, but there are few who would trust their whole network to it.” Factors such as snow, rain and leaves can disrupt fixed wireless links, Sharwood explains.

“But it is pretty reliable,” he adds. “It’s not like every time it snows you’re going to lose your connection. If you’re doing something that’s mission-critical though, fixed wireless probably isn’t your first choice.”

Hybrid strategy One firm that’s using fixed wireless to complement a fibre-based service is Calgary-based clothing retailer Mark’s Work Warhouse Ltd. Mark’s turned to a 3Mbps burstable connection from fixed wireless provider Terago Networks Inc. when Mark’s became dissatisfied with its existing fibre-based Internet line.

Terago is a Toronto-based firm that offers fixed wireless services to businesses in 17 Ontario, B.C, Alberta and Manitoba markets. Mark’s originally used a fibre connection from Telus for both virtual private network (VPN) links from its Calgary data centre to its stores across the country and to allow company employees to access the Internet, says Monte McIntyre, Mark’s director of information technology.

Later, Mark’s switched from Telus to Bell Canada, but continued to get services over the same fibre network with Bell leasing the link from Telus. Ultimately, McIntyre says, Mark’s couldn’t justify the cost of a fibre-based service for Internet access.

“Even with the fibre already installed, the rates for partial fibre were not competitive with fixed wireless,” he says. So in December, 2003, Mark’s decided to turn to fixed wireless for its Internet traffic, while keeping its VPN services on the fibre-based network.

Fixed wireless had an additional benefit for Mark’s, which already had a pair of completely separate fibre connections into its data center, by offering increased network reliability.

“Having wireless as a third option in our data centre gives us that much more resiliency coming in here,” McIntyre says. Mark’s is in the process of setting up a second active data centre in the Calgary area, McIntyre noted, and the clothier wanted to make sure there was as much redundancy in the connections between the two data centres as possible.

“So any failure of any kind, bakhoe or otherwise, Terago gets rid of that,” he says. “And if Terago is impacted on the wireless, fibre is the alternative. So between the two, or three in this case, we feel we have the resiliency to be able to run between the two data centres.” While the general Internet traffic running over the Terago connection isn’t mission-critical, Mark’s also uses the Internet connection to run its Web site and maintain Internet-based VPN connections to a handful of stores in remote communities where fibre-based VPN service isn’t available, or is too expensive. So uptime on the Internet link is important.

McIntyre says he’s been happy with the fixed wireless link so far. In fact, it’s probably been more reliable than Mark’s previous Internet service, although not necessarily because of the physical connection. Last fall, McIntyre explained, Telus was hard-hit by worms and viruses and Mark’s lost its Internet connection for an extended period of time.

“It was difficult to get it repaired, because they were getting bombarded by customers with problems,” he said. McIntyre wouldn’t mind using fixed wireless at more Mark’s locations, but at this point it’s just not available in too many markets.

“In my view it would be nicer if Terago were more pervasive and available to more of our stores,” he says. “We’re gradually working away from one telco vendor doing everything, because it just doesn’t seem to be the formula that works any more in Canada. The big carriers are too big. They can’t keep up with the demands of their customers.”

Wireless all the way The Keewatin-Patricia District School Board in Northern Ontario also turned to wireless when its incumbent telco couldn’t provide the services the school board wanted. Unlike Mark’s though, Keewatin had to serve multiple locations spread across 70,000 square miles. Since no provider covered the entire area, the school board went out on a limb and built its own fixed wireless network.

“We knew when we went into it we were taking a bit of a gamble,” says Del Schmucker, IS manager for the school board. “In the past when a circuit went down we could just call Bell and expect it to be fixed. That’s not the case now.” Before installing the radios, Schmucker had some technicians trained in tower climbing and setting up the radio network.

One year after installation, Keewatin-Patricia’s investment is paying off in spades, Schmucker says. He estimates his operating costs are half of what they once were and that the district will recoup its investment in the radios in three or four years. “In the past we were paying almost $300,000 a year in operating costs,” he says. “Putting the wireless in, even though we’re renting tower space, our costs came down to around $150,000 a year.” Keewatin-Patricia began looking at fixed wireless when the district outgrew its existing fibre-based bandwidth.

“In one place, we were serving a whole town with 512Kbps of bandwidth,” Schmucker says. “That was servicing three to four schools in town. And we were running voice over IP, videoconferencing and a host of applications besides Internet off it.”

The district couldn’t afford a higher-bandwidth service from Bell Canada, so it purchased radios from Toronto-based equipment manufacturer Redline Communications, set up almost 20 tower sites and began running its own wireless WAN. The WAN acts as a backbone between the district’s towns with WiFi gear providing last-mile access into the schools.

Now instead of getting 512Kbps or even 1.5Mbps, the school district between 30Mbps and 40Mbps to its towns. The district had so much spare bandwidth that it set up a separate non-profit corporation that now runs the network for the school board and sells excess capacity to other organziations. Any profits are plowed back into the school board. Network reliability hasn’t been a problem Schmucker says. Since Sept. 1 of last year, network uptime has been 99.98 per cent.

Environmental conditions haven’t had an impact on the network, he notes. “During really nasty storms you’ll see the signal fade a bit, but we’ve designed it in such as way that we never lose signal.”

Bell buys in Even Bell Canada, a fibre-based stalwart, has committed to building a fixed wireless network in Alberta to compete with arch rival Telus.

“Fixed wireless for us, we view it as a more cost-effective approach to reaching some of our business customers that perhaps reside a distance from the downtown core of Calgary or Edmonton,” says Keith Ponton, general manager, engineering with Bell Canada. Building its own fixed wireless network makes more sense for Bell than leasing fibre capacity from Telus, Ponton explains. “It gives us control over provisioning and repair that we feel is key to delivering excellent service to our customers.”

Bell did extensive testing of its Ericsson point-to-multipoint wireless gear and was happy with the results, Ponton notes. “We feel it’s going to meet all our service levels that are required for our leading-edge IP services and it will allow us to deliver voice, video and data seamlessly to our customers.”

The committed information rate (CIR) over the wireless links will be 10Mbps and Bell will adjust the CIR within that 10Mbps window to give customers the bandwidth they require. Bell has started deploying the network already and the initial phase of the build should be finished by mid-2005, Ponton says.

Bell is also now looking at the possibility of rolling out fixed wireless in B.C., another area where Bell has limited fibre facilities. “The fixed wireless approach for us is really a way for us to expand our broadband footprint,” Ponton says. “It’s really going to allow us to deliver our leading edge IP services to our business customers.”

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