Marine Laboratory Unwires Researchers

Woods Hole, Massachusetts is no ordinary Cape Cod town. In addition to the typical influx of tourists during the summer months, many of whom come to visit the National Marine Fisheries aquarium (said to be the oldest in the country), to check out the first Buckminster Fuller Geodesic dome, or to board the ferry to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, Woods Hole also experiences a major influx of scientists. Every summer, the population of the seaside village, home to two of the world’s most significant marine research facilities—The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) and The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which discovered the Titanic in 1986—swells with researchers from all over the world. This unique summer population has for years presented a complicated telecommunications problem to these institutions. Dozens of researchers in multiple buildings spread out over several miles in isolated areas resulted in a challenge for IT managers, as well as for the visiting researchers and their families. The solution turned out to be a little old-fashioned cooperation, and some new-fangled technology—fiber optics coupled with Wi-Fi.

In addition to a campus in downtown Woods Hole, the MBL has a 15-building campus which serves graduate students and other summer investigators. Housing consists primarily of several dozen rustic, old cottages situated in two loops several miles away from the central MBL buildings.

Despite being what MBL Network Manager Rob Loyot calls “basically huts in the woods,” the cabins are much-desired, particularly by families, because of their proximity to beaches. However, there is virtually no cell phone reception, and due to the timing and method of housing assignments, turning on phones and cable has been a perennial nightmare.

“At best, it was extremely expensive and inconvenient. At worst, they would have nothing. It was like camping,” says Loyot.

As pressure to bring the cabins online mounted, MBL began looking at solutions.

“We were closing in on deciding we had to do something dramatic when the opportunity came up to work with WHOI,” says Loyot. “Their project became an enabler to our project.”

While MBL and WHOI are separate entities with their own staffs, budgets, projects, and long rosters of Nobel Laureates to boast about, they have a longstanding, collegial working relationship with one another.

“WHOI is in the process of building some fiber down to Woods Hole, where they also have some structures. We granted them the easement, and in exchange we asked if we could grab a couple of strands of their fiber network,” says Loyot.

WHOI agreed, and once the fiber was in place, the MBL started looking at cost-effective solutions for bringing the cottages online. Wireless was the obvious way to go, but thick stands of pine trees presented a problem.

“We settled on the 900 megahertz (MHz) version of Motorola Canopy,” says Loyot, “because it’s foliage-penetrating. We don’t have perfect line of sight, and the 900 megahertz saturates very well.”

The cabins, which were brought online in the first week of June, are arranged in two circles of 36 cabins each. To serve them, Loyot’s team erected a 30-foot pole in the middle of each circle.

“We put a data switch in an enclosed can, ran an array of antennas up on the poles to serve as access points, and then installed [receivers] at the cottages, like little tiny satellite dishes. Each access point on the pole can talk to between six and ten cottages,” says Loyot.

The approximate total cost of the project to MBL was $200,000. While the researchers and MBL are happy with their solution, it hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride.

“We’ve been debugging it all summer,” says Loyot. “I should mention that getting the radio piece of it refined, the Canopy piece, has taken a lot of tweaking— firmware updates, repositioning antennae, fighting with jittering latency. The VoIP had a bunch of problems.”

Troubleshooting the various reception issues often required an old-school solution. “We would go up on the roof of the cottage with a laptop and wiggle the antenna to catch the signal,” says Loyot.

The network is fully encrypted. “You cannot join the Motorola system without having a properly identified MAC ID,” says Loyot. “No one can drive by with an antenna and get on, and they can’t sniff the packets or the data because it’s all encrypted.”

The cost of the services—roughly $40 for high-speed Internet and VoIP (local calling only)—is folded into the overall housing cost for residents in the cottages.

In addition to Motorola, several other vendors were involved in the project. Enterasys, one of several companies which responded to the RFP, was chosen to provide the switching equipment installed on the telephone poles.

Blue Spruce Technologies also worked with us on all the data parts of the project for the entire campus,” says Loyot. “They helped us design and do all the switching. And Community WISP was largely responsible for bringing us the Motorola Canopy portion.”

In the off-season, when no one is occupying the cabins, MBL will remove all but one of the data switches and put them in storage until the following spring.

“It’ll go dark out there,” says Loyot. “We’ll keep one live to do testing all winter. The data switches have environmental factors that allow them to live in those NEMA enclosures on those poles without getting killed by temperature. It’s an extreme deployment for data switching.”

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