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Service provider-ready wireless LANs

Feb 11, 20035 mins
Cellular NetworksEnterprise ApplicationsWi-Fi

Wireless LANs remain one of the bright spots in an otherwise lackluster networking market. But service providers, with a few exceptions, haven’t really caught on to the services aspect of the Wi-Fi revolution.

Wireless LANs remain one of the bright spots in an otherwise lackluster networking market. But service providers, with a few exceptions, haven’t really caught on to the services aspect of the Wi-Fi revolution. Sure, companies like Boingo and Wayport are beginning to make a business providing hot spot services, and Cometa has jumped into the pool too (creating a huge splash), but there isn’t yet a widespread availability of Wi-Fi services in public places (beyond Starbucks/T-Mobile).

One reason for this is certainly a hesitancy for any service provider to invest in any new service these days. What might be an even bigger reason is the difficulty of installing and managing a secure, high quality service that customers will actually pay for. It’s easy enough for a café to get a $50/month DSL line and throw an open access point on the end of it – as a freebie for their customers. It’s a lot harder to properly install and manage multiple access points, keep unauthorized customers off the network, and deliver enough quality of service to keep paying customers happy.

Most access points today are designed as stand-alone devices, independent systems if you will; so a hot spot operator looking at a deployment must consider the time to individually manage and maintain each access point when making a business case. This isn’t a pretty picture. And it doesn’t allow the access points to work together to maintain service when outages occur, or traffic in one area of the hot spot becomes too much for that access point to handle.

We’ve spent some time recently speaking with start-ups that think they can help with this problem by providing centralized switched management for access points. Most of these companies are looking at the enterprise (where “rogue” access points and security issues abound) as a primary market, but their centralized solutions may also solve a problem for public access providers.

For example, Aruba Wireless Networks’ “wireless LAN switching system” is designed to provide for wireless networks what Ethernet switches provided for LANs all those years ago.  For a large hot spot deployment , like an airport or convention center, the centralized wireless LAN switch controls all of the access points throughout the deployment. Installation is eased in a couple of ways: the wireless LAN switch calculates optimal access point locations without a detailed (and tens of thousands of dollars expensive) site survey, and a single Ethernet Cat 5 cable delivers data, power and RS-232 console control to each access point.  Aruba’s goal is to make deployment plug and play.  Plug in an access point and the WLAN switch discovers it and automatically configures it, including channel and power settings.

These “switched” solutions are also designed to make ongoing management and maintenance easier. For example, if an access point goes out, the wireless LAN switch automatically adjusts power levels and channel assignments on adjacent access points to maintain service availability. Aruba’s system can also use access points as “air monitors” to monitor traffic levels, capture 802.11 packets for wireless RMON, detect security violations and continuously calibrate access point settings.

These centralized solutions may even have a play for service providers considering offering hot spot services in smaller venues (like the almost mythical café hot spot). The wireless LAN switch can be located back at the CO or at a NOC, instead of on the customer premises.  A potential hot spot operator can then purchase a managed service from the service provider (consisting of a drop-shipped access point and a broadband connection back to the NOC), and simply plug it in and let the provider remotely configure and manage the service.

While Aruba Networks is the first to offer these centralized wireless LAN products, they will soon not be the only.  Airespace (formerly BlackStorm Networks) and AirFlow Networks are also launching similar products this year. Companies like Vernier Networks, with wireless LAN security and management products for the enterprise, are also pursuing the public access market.

While hot spot services have, up until now, been primarily the domain of wireless service providers, we think that there’s a great opportunity here for wireline providers. A great example is DSL roaming: current DSL service plans often include only a limited number of dialup minutes for roaming customers.  Customers hate going back to dialup, and they hate having to pay more for the privilege of doing so. DSL providers in Asia are already going down this road. It makes perfect sense for U.S. providers to do the same thing.  With a centrally managed wireless LAN system riding over their existing DSL infrastructure they could provide a high speed roaming service – a value-added service that customers will really pay for.