Behind the Hype of the Canary Wharf Hotzone

Billed as the largest public access Wi-Fi network in a business district in Europe, the wireless project at London’s Canary Wharf, unveiled in August, is indeed impressive and features some interesting and innovative technical and business approaches. But it is also an example of how hype often gets ahead of reality in the Wi-Fi world.

The Cloud, a UK-based Wi-Fi network integrator and hotspot operator with over 6,000 hotspot sites, mainly in Britain, built the Canary Wharf network in partnership with Canary Wharf Group, developer of the Thames-side skyscraper complex in the city’s former docklands.

As The Cloud’s Chief Technology Officer Niall Murphy notes, the 96-acre site was ripe for such a project. Seventy-five thousand people work there, and 15,000 visitors on average come every day to what Murphy describes as a “mini-Manhattan.” It’s not just the concentration of people that makes it attractive as a hotzone venue, but also the type of people.

“There’s a concentration here of very IT-oriented financial services organizations, all very close to each other,” Murphy says. “There are also lots of analysts and lawyers. It’s a real knowledge worker community. In fact, this space is almost an example of what the rest of the world will look like in two or three years.”

The fact that The Cloud almost immediately began to see usage in the tens of thousands of minutes per day is an indication of the pent-up demand for service. But usage will increase, Murphy says. “We’re happy with what we’ve seen so far, but it will take some time [to build]. Workers will have to adapt their behavior.”

The hype around the Canary Wharf project starts almost from the first line of the company’s press release. To describe it as a network, singular, and imply that it covers the entire 96 acres, is a stretch. The coverage is impressive enough, but it doesn’t take in the entire site. Nor is it contiguous. The Canary Wharf project is, at least for now, more a collection of linked, centrally managed hotspots than a monolithic network.

Two underground shopping centers, the reception areas in each of the major tenanted buildings, the block-square outdoor parks that dot the complex, subway station entrances and other public areas are all covered. While many tenants have their own Wi-Fi LANs in their private spaces, The Cloud’s network does not extend into the tenanted areas of the buildings. And the Canary Wharf conference center isn’t covered yet.

“The principle of it all is that if you’re a visitor moving around the space, whether you’re a business person or a consumer, pretty much anywhere you’re likely to be, you’ll get a signal,” Murphy says.

The company has made no attempt at this point to create a hotzone of contiguous coverage, although the press release talks tantalizingly about the network supporting hybrid Wi-Fi/cellular devices. In part because of the challenges of deploying Wi-Fi in a concrete jungle and in underground sites, it was prohibitive to think of creating contiguous coverage in the first phase of the project, Murphy says. For now, it’s not even possible to maintain a data session while walking from one coverage area to another, let alone a voice call.

“We definitely intend to institute that kind of capability in the future,” Murphy says. “But at this point, laptop connectivity is what’s really driving it.”

Given the nature of the coverage, then, it’s perhaps not quite so surprising – or “disappointing,” as Murphy jokingly puts it – that the infrastructure installed comprises only 42 access points. Most are from Ericsson, some from Cisco. The Cloud’s network engineers exploited antenna technology to maximize coverage with these modest resources, he says.  

It’s an interesting indication of how hype works that an otherwise credible and knowledgeable executive at Ericsson recently assured me that the Canary Wharf project used thousands of the company’s APs. Well, it must have done, since it’s the “Biggest Network Ever.”

The APs are deployed in a variety of ways – in ceilings in the underground shopping centers and building reception areas, on lampposts and low buildings or in data communications cabinets outside. “The nice thing about Wi-Fi equipment is that it’s quite small,” Murphy says. “So you can be flexible about how you install it.”

The traffic is backhauled from eight different points around the site, by multiple private backhaul providers. That was cheaper than trying to aggregate traffic at one place on the site and then backhaul from there, Murphy explains. The traffic goes to a Cloud data center in London where network managers can control the access points.

The network architecture used means that moving from the current hotspot-style coverage to hotzone coverage will not require a complete redesign or reinstallation. “We have the least amount of dependence on equipment deployed at the site and maximum central control,” Murphy explains. “So we can do much of that development work centrally.”

The AP infrastructure will also get denser, both as demand for bandwidth increases and as The Cloud and Canary Wharf move toward blanket coverage of the site.

On the business side, the Canary Wharf project is something of a departure for The Cloud, which maintains its own network of about 6,200 hotspots and a roaming network of 22,000, with an undisclosed number of subscribers. At Canary Wharf, it operates the network on behalf of Canary Wharf Group, and part of the deal was that any service provider could use it. The Cloud offers pay-as-you-go service directly to visitors who do not have a service provider, but otherwise, it’s on an equal footing with companies it competes with elsewhere.

“The fact that it can be a multi-service network was critical to make it work for Canary Wharf,” Murphy explains. “They did not want to be in a situation of having to say to tenants that they have to buy from so-and-so or else they can’t use the infrastructure.”

There are already 30 service providers on the network, a range of European and U.S. companies, as well as some Asian providers. The roster includes major players such as British Telecom’s BT Openzone, O2, EarthLink, KPN and Boingo. They pay a fee to get on the network and then buy capacity at wholesale rates, negotiated on a deal-by-deal basis.

Besides the internal WLANs in tenant spaces, there was already some public access Wi-Fi at Canary Wharf before this project, including a Cloud site in a Coffee Republic shop. BT Openzone and T-Mobile were also both there. They may not remain, or at least not as totally independent hotspots. “The Canary Wharf Management Group wants to achieve standardization of the services they make available throughout the site,” Murphy explains. “So we may see a reduction in alternative services.”

One of the issues is spectrum contention. Having one network will make it easier to manage, he says. It’s an issue that The Cloud is already having to deal with as it discusses interfaces between tenant WLANs and the public access network. Eventually, it will be possible for tenants’ employees to log into their enterprise networks from the public access network. “I expect early in the new year [2006], we’ll see some enterprise mobility happening,” Murphy says.

The Cloud is also currently talking to Canary Wharf about its security, maintenance and other staff using the network to communicate when they’re mobile. They currently use cell phones and two-way radios. “So there’s a lot of interest there – though Canary Wharf really didn’t do the project on the basis that they would [use the network for internal applications],” Murphy says.

The Canary Wharf project is an interesting one, to be sure. And it will likely evolve to become something more like the world-beating enterprise the initial hype suggested. In the meantime, it’s perhaps a better illustration of how to create maximum impact with minimum resources – impact both in the sense of service presence and publicity.

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