Consolidating your access points

A centralized "wireless switch" or "router" is placed in the enterprise wiring closet, and a number of access points (dozens or even hundreds are possible with many of these products) are placed throughout the enterprise or campus. Another start-up in this space - Vivato - has received a lot of press for their very different approach to the enterprise Wi-Fi network.

In past columns we've talked about some "switched" wireless LAN solutions: devices that control and aggregate multiple access points in an enterprise or campus Wi-Fi deployment. These switches provide central management of all access points in a Wi-Fi network - traffic prioritization, load balancing, and even, in some cases, monitoring of the airwaves for unauthorized users and rogue access points. A host of these solutions have hit the market in the past six months from vendors such as Aruba Wireless NetworksChantry NetworksAirespace and others. The main selling point of all of these solutions is that they provide a centrally managed wireless LAN system as opposed to the more traditional enterprise approach of installing a series of "smart" access points, each of which handles its own authentication, security, routing and other network functionality.

While each of these solutions has its own special features and "secret sauce," they all share a similar network architecture. A centralized "wireless switch" or "router" is placed in the enterprise wiring closet, and a number of access points (dozens or even hundreds are possible with many of these products) are placed throughout the enterprise or campus. Another start-up in this space - Vivato - has received a lot of press for their very different approach to the enterprise Wi-Fi network. 

Vivato takes an even more centralized approach by allowing an enterprise to install a single device: Vivato's Indoor or Outdoor Wi-Fi switch. The Vivato Wi-Fi switch uses the company’s "smart antenna" technology, a planar phased array antenna system (similar to the systems used in many military radar systems). This phased array system consists of a flat panel that can electronically form narrow radio wave "beams." Because these beams can be precisely aimed and the wave form can maintain a narrow area of coverage, Vivato claims their system can virtually eliminate interference from adjacent channels (an issue in 802.11b and g systems, where channels have a high degree of overlap).

Vivato’s smart antenna system has other benefits worth noting. First, the system can create multiples of these aimed beams, providing a virtual point-to-point system when transmitting to clients on the network (Vivato calls this "Packet Steering"). So these clients are not contending for bandwidth in a shared environment, as they are in a typical Wi-Fi system. Second, the process of precisely shaping and aiming these discrete beams has the side benefit of increasing the range of the system. While typical Wi-Fi access points have a range of 300 feet, Vivato claims a reach of miles.

The Vivato system does this using standard Wi-Fi protocols without using higher power, and currently supports the 802.11b standard. The company is also planning on 802.11g and 802.11a products in the future, which will increase the bandwidth available to users. And despite the increased range of the Vivato system, standard client hardware can be used - which means the Wi-Fi PC cards already in place in laptops and other devices will work with the Vivato system.

Vivato's initial product, the indoor switch, is aimed at the midsized to large enterprise market, providing coverage of entire floors or even an entire enterprise from a single unit.  At CTIA this year, Vivato announced an outdoor switch that can be used to provide coverage to an entire building or even several buildings in a campus environment.

In our opinion, this outdoor switch is very interesting from a service provider perspective. The range of Vivato's system, combined with the ability to precisely segregate user traffic on different "beams," can really enhance the range and usefulness of public Wi-Fi access. Instead of installing a large number of very localized access point hot spots, a provider could use a much smaller number of Vivato switches to provide access over a larger region. Because the system uses standard Wi-Fi client hardware, the cost of outfitting potential customers is minimal.

A service provider, for example, could install an outdoor Wi-Fi switch in a residential neighborhood or business park and easily provide portable broadband services to customers without a big per customer installation or capital expense. We've seen other systems based on Wi-Fi that provide this kind of access, but these systems require specialized (and low volume) CPE. With end user Wi-Fi hardware pricing at $40 to $50 and still dropping - and becoming standard equipment on many new PCs and handhelds - this system could be an extremely cost-effective and easy to deploy way for service providers to extend wireless services to customers currently not on the network.

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