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Helium Wireless Recon: A Sneak Peek

Over the past few months, I've been testing Helium Networks' new Wireless Recon system for performing radio frequency (RF) site surveys and engineering wireless LANs. Helium had been referring to this product as Rollabout during the beta development phase while I've been testing. The commercial release of the Wireless Recon system, which includes some enhancements, was announced this at Interop in Las Vegas

The Wireless Recon system consists of SiteSense software that installs on a wireless-equipped laptop that you connect via a cable to their SiteScout cart (which Helium refers to as "mapping hardware"). The cart includes three wheels and a platform for holding the laptop. The SiteScout unit is easy to push around and conveniently folds up and fits within a sturdy case suitable for checking on airline flights.

You roll the Wireless Recon system around a facility in order to perform RF site surveys and design wireless LANs. SiteSense maps the RF signal measurements it obtains through the wireless card to the position information that SiteScout generates via the rotation of the cart's wheels. SiteSense displays and records relative position and applicable signal measurements as you roll through the facility.

When conducting a RF survey, SiteSense allows you to easily view signal and noise measurements along the path, and the software generates a coverage map that predicts coverage in areas where you may not have specifically tested. You can import a building diagram to keep track of where you're going, but that's not necessary. Just identify the starting point in the facility, and you can later import the diagram. This comes in handy when building diagrams are not available prior to beginning the survey, which is often the case.

A strong advantage of Wireless Recon, compared to other site survey tools, is that you can perform accurate sites surveys via unique positioning from wheels of the cart. Other tools either require several pre-existing access points to establish position or point-and-click methods for identifying position on a building diagram. The problem with the point-and-click approach is that references aren't always available for you to identify position accurately. You also end up having a limited number of signal measurements. GPS doesn't work indoors, so that's not an option for positioning for most wireless LAN site surveys. The positioning based on wheel movement is truly a unique (and patented) idea that enables accurate and practical positioning.

Wireless Recon performs very accurate site surveys, which is crucial for voice applications. For example, Cisco recommends that all wireless LAN radio cells have a minimum 25dB signal-to-noise ratio with 25 percent overlap between cells. With Wireless Recon, I've found that you can complete surveys relatively fast through efficient recording of signal information. Just roll the cart around the area of a single access point, and the recording and mapping of the signals to precise location is done automatically.

The only downside I found is that the user interface isn't very intuitive. Training by Helium personnel was necessary to fully understand how to use the tool. Helium, though, claims that they have fine-tuned the display in the commercial release of the product.

Customers can buy the Wireless Recon system for an introductory price of $4495. Additional SiteSense software licenses can be purchased for $1495 per license. The laptop and the Wi-Fi client adapter card are not included.

Even though the price of Wireless Recon may seem high as compared to other site survey tools, the bottom line is that with Wireless Recon you can perform accurate RF site surveys relatively fast.

Jim Geier is the principal of Wireless-Nets, Ltd., a consulting firm focusing on the implementation of wireless mobile solutions and training. He is the author of the books, Wireless LANs (Sams) and Wireless Networks - First Step (Cisco Press).