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San Jose Wi-Fi net could mark rethinking of 'muni Wi-Fi'

New technology and new realism mark emerging networks

By , Network World
March 13, 2012 11:19 AM ET

Network World - A new downtown Wi-Fi network being built in San Jose, Calif., could indicate a resurgence, based on new approaches, to the ill-fated and brief "muni Wi-Fi" fad of the past decade. The network is scheduled to go live this summer.

The city's goal is not to become a wireless service provider for all residents. Instead, it's replacing an aging, sputtering early muni Wi-Fi network with a modern, high-capacity wireless LAN designed first to support some key municipal infrastructure applications. Then in selected areas, first of all the densely used 1.5-square-mile downtown district, it can offer excess capacity as a free amenity to the growing ranks of iPad and other mobile device users.

BACKGROUND: Network operators get serious about Wi-Fi

San Jose is, literally, capitalizing on an extensive private fiber network that's married to a downtown Internet peer point, where carriers cross-connect. The city gets Internet connectivity at wholesale prices and is planning to swell its Internet pipe from 1Gbps to 20Gbps. This infrastructure is critical to holding down the wireless network's backhaul costs and maximizing the network's capacity.

The Wi-Fi network, using the latest 802.11n outdoor gear from nearby Ruckus Wireless, will consist of about 30 nodes. Many of them will in effect plug into the fiber backbone nodes, via Ethernet. Some of the radio nodes will use Ruckus mesh capability to let two or at most three nodes share one fiber connection. In some cases, the 11n access nodes will work with high-capacity, point-to-point or point-to-multipoint Ruckus wireless bridges where fiber isn't nearby.

In some respects, San Jose is taking a tack similar to mobile carriers, which are looking to Wi-Fi's unlicensed spectrum to create an effective way to shift their mobile data traffic from cell towers to Wi-Fi hot zones, especially in areas with dense user populations and lots of mobile devices. [see "Network operators get serious about Wi-Fi"]

The city is buying Ruckus ZoneFlex 7762 802.11n dual-band outdoor access points and two ZoneDirector 3050 central controllers for its City Hall-based network operations center. The access points are compact, unobtrusive boxes with not visible external antennas. There were some demanding requirements in the request for proposals, among them the ability to stream multi-cast video, according to Vijay Sammeta, the city's acting chief information officer.

Ruckus beat out its usual rivals for the project based on three considerations: superior radio frequency propagation -- based on its innovative built-in, multi-element antenna array, beamforming, and a range of signal and channel management improvements; sustained high bandwidth; and aggressive pricing. The vendor says its Wi-Fi signals can reach two to four times the distance of more conventional Wi-Fi offerings. Beamforming coupled with the unique antenna design can adjust the magnitude and direction of the RF signal dynamically and "focus" it on a specific client device, improving range and throughput.

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