Cutting the cord (or fiber)

Wireless is becoming more than just a means of creating a LAN in a home or office, or of connecting while on the road. New high-speed point-to-point wireless technologies are beginning to find a place in parts of the network that used to require fiber connectivity.

Wireless is becoming more than just a means of creating a LAN  in a home or office, or of connecting while on the road. New high-speed point-to-point wireless technologies are beginning to find a place in parts of the network that used to require fiber connectivity.

Of course, wireless technologies have long been used for point-to-point links using licensed and unlicensed wireless solutions. But these solutions have typically either been too expensive or too limited to rival wireline fiber services for business requiring 10M bit/sec circuits or higher.

We recently spoke with a provider - Telecom Ottawa , the CLEC subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa - that believes to have found a wireless solution that rivals its fiber network in price and performance. Telecom Ottawa provides fiber services to business, schools and government within the 5,000 square kilometer borders of the city of Ottawa. The company is mainly focused on being a “Broadband Utility” for customers requiring 10M bit/sec or greater broadband connectivity.

Despite a network that Telecom Ottawa describes as the largest 10G bit/sec Ethernet network in North America, the company still found itself running into potential customers that were not “on the grid” for their fiber infrastructure and that didn’t make business case sense for new fiber deployments. Telecom Ottawa tried several iterations of wireless solutions for these customers – both licensed and unlicensed, as well as free-space optics (FSO) – but didn’t find a satisfactory system until they hit upon a local company, DragonWave.

Using DragonWave’s AirPair system, Telecom Ottawa has been able to offer services up to 100M bit/sec at considerably less cost than the more traditional microwave solutions the company had been trialing. AirPair also fits well into Telecom Ottawa’s network due to the system’s native Ethernet interface - many competing solutions that Telecom Ottawa tried presented SONET  interfaces which required additional equipment to mate up to the company’s Ethernet backbone.

The AirPair system (starting at about $18,000 per radio pair, including antenna) has a range of about 10 miles,  significantly greater than the FSO systems Telecom Ottawa trialed. It is also immune to environmental issues, including the severe cold experienced in Telecom Ottawa’s territory during winter months.  AirPair uses spectrum between 18 MHz and 38 MHz; Telecom Ottawa is using licensed frequencies in the 18 GHz and 23 GHz bands. With nearly 20 revenue-producing circuits in place, Telecom Ottawa has not yet experienced a single outage.

Telecom Ottawa found several interesting uses for AirPair in its network:

•  As a straightforward fiber-replacement for off-net customers. While fiber is still the company's preferred solution where available, the 100M bit/sec offered by AirPair can provide adequate bandwidth for all but the most demanding customer needs, and can be deployed more cheaply than trenching and laying new fiber.

•  As a "diversity" play. The first fiber link into a building typically uses the most cost effective route. Getting a second link into a building in a backhoe-safe, physically diverse route is often much more expensive. AirPair can provide highly capable redundancy without requiring new ground to be broken.

•  As a fast deployment option. Telecom Ottawa keeps a stock of AirPair systems in inventory for customers who need service right away. The DragonWave solution can be deployed in less than a day, and Telecom Ottawa is using this to "bridge" customer's services requirements until fiber, which takes longer to install, is in place. In at least one case, the customer was so pleased with its wireless service, they kept it permanently and cancelled a planned fiber installation.

Telecom Ottawa will not argue (nor will we) that a wireless solution is superior to fiber. For highest bandwidth requirements or for customers who will grow beyond the bandwidth available in a wireless system, fiber still rules the day. But with prices dropping below the cost of running new fiber, and capabilities increasing every day, wireless is becoming an increasingly compelling alternative.

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