It’s not news that the cellular and Wi-Fi domains are converging, but nowhere is it more evident than in the world of in-building wireless coverage. When building owners or cellular carriers undertake projects to extend wide-area coverage into multi-tenant skyscrapers today, they typically look to design a network that incorporates all possible wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi.
Nobody knows this better than Mario Bouchard, founder and president of Montreal-based iBwave Solutions, maker of RF-vu, a widely used network design tool. In the two years since it was first introduced, RF-vu has become the standard among in-building wireless network designers, Bouchard says.
iBwave sells the product to network operators, systems integrators and cellular equipment makers on five continents. Bell Mobility and Telus, two of the three national carriers in Canada, use it. “A bunch” of cellular operators in the U.S., including Sprint, are customers, as are manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson.
Bouchard says Wi-Fi has become an increasingly important part of the projects his customers work on, and those projects increasingly call for designs in which Wi-Fi delivers “carrier-grade” reliability and performance. To meet the demand, iBwave is bringing out a new Wi-Fi-centric version of its product in October, and also incorporating new Wi-Fi features in the main product.
RF-vu is a comprehensive design tool that replaces the hodge-podge of programs designers otherwise often rely upon – Microsoft Visio and Excel coupled with Autodesk’s Autocad, for example. It combines graphics-based design and automated site survey functions. A designer can import building floor plans and use Autocad-like tools to virtually place access points and base stations.
The program generates color-coded contour diagrams showing predicted coverage areas based on positioning, type of equipment – designers can choose from almost 5,000 network components – and the channels used. It also automatically generates trunking diagrams. When the equipment is all positioned for optimum coverage, RF-vu outputs time and materials lists, cost estimates, return on investment (ROI) analyses and detailed design drawings.
“In terms of equipment, it covers everything,” Bouchard says. “All the frequency bands, all the technologies. The main feature of RF-vu is that it’s able to design [networks using] all these technologies together in one project.”
Bouchard cites two factors driving convergence of cellular and Wi-Fi today. One is that most in-building wireless projects are undertaken at the behest of building owners – whether implemented by carriers or independent systems integrators – and owners are insisting on omnibus projects that minimize disruption and improve economies by completing all wireless installation at one time. They are also insisting that Wi-Fi be part of the mix because their users or tenants want it for data networking, and they want to be able to control the spectrum in their buildings.
The other factor is the emergence of dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi handsets, which are beginning to hit the market now. The cellular operators iBwave supplies expect in the not-too-distant future to be switching calls from PCS networks outside to Wi-Fi inside for subscribers with dual-mode phones.
“The neat thing about having customers worldwide is that you see the trends in the market — and at this point,” Bouchard says, “everybody is going in the same direction.”
Some carriers have in the past expressed reservations about the idea of switching traffic from high-margin cellular networks on which they can continue to charge steep per-minute rates, to Wi-Fi for which they cannot justify such high prices. But Bouchard says they now realize they won’t have a choice. Customers will demand Wi-Fi.
“Obviously [the carriers] don’t want to give minutes away to Boingo or somebody like that,” he says. “So they will build [indoor networks] with both Wi-Fi and 3G, and there will be some operators where the dual-mode phones will automatically find the cheapest route.”
Bouchard spent 15 years working for Bell Mobility and Telus before forming iBwave. He was surprised himself at the change in thinking among carriers on the subject of cellular-Wi-Fi convergence. A recent conversation with the chief technology officer at one of his former employers left him in no doubt, though, that it had changed.
“He told me, ‘We don’t care what medium we use. We’ll have 800 [MHz for iDen], 1900 CDMA, Wi-Fi – pretty much every medium,’” Bouchard says. “They’ll transfer either the call or the data connection to the best network or the cheapest network. For them, the goal is to make sure they capture the traffic so they can keep their customer. They want to sell a global access package. And they don’t want or need to tell people on which platform the call is going to be carried.”
A side benefit of off-loading in-building traffic on to Wi-Fi is that it conserves capacity in the wide area network, Bouchard points out.
Adding Wi-Fi into the design mix is relatively simple with RF-vu, and will be simpler still with the new products coming in October, Bouchard says. Wi-Fi network design is typically simpler than designing in-building cellular networks, anyway. “I would say for Wi-Fi, because it’s less complicated, you can [generate designs] in maybe 30 minutes for a very large building, with all the reports and all the costs,” he says.
The value proposition for RF-vu is partly the time savings and ease of design provided by all the automated coverage and interference prediction features. The other part of it is the documents the program outputs. “Documentation for in-building projects is a big problem when you’re using all different software tools,” Bouchard says. RF-vu keeps all the documents related to a project in one easily accessible database – and the documents it can output cover a wide range.
“We can send plans to the building owner for approval, or to a company to get bid on installation, or to the installers to use when they’re installing,” he says. “We’re trying to provide a complete package for the whole value chain.”
There are Wi-Fi-specific coverage prediction tools available from other vendors, but nobody else has such a comprehensive set of features for designing multi-technology in-building networks incorporating Wi-Fi, Bouchard says.
The current product provides some Wi-Fi features, but does not incorporate coverage prediction for 802.11a networks. The new product will provide 11a features. It will also incorporate a more powerful prediction engine from Red-M, a UK-based company with which iBwave is now partnering.
What’s clear from all this is that Wi-Fi, as Bouchard notes, is entering a new stage in its evolution. The era when individual businesses in multi-tenant buildings could design and build their own networks – often with little regard for how they might interact and interfere with other RF in the same building – is probably over.
To ensure the kind of carrier-grade quality cellular operators and building owners are increasingly demanding will require much more exacting and structured design standards. iBwave is all for that.