Unwiring Military Families

Military families have enough to worry about without thinking about their Internet access, right?

That’s the feeling of Lincoln Military Housing (LMH, a division of Lincoln Property Company), which operates many communities for all branches of the United States armed forces. Near San Diego, families of Navy personnel living at the Naval Training Center (NTC) or Gateway Center — about 500 apartment units in each — are the first for whom LMH will provide free wireless Internet access as an amenity.

Wireless Evolutions of Dallas, Texas is the system integrator and network provider. It built the networks using mesh equipment from BelAir Networks.  About 20 nodes in each community — a mix of their units, from the BelAir200 down to the 50c — blanket each community with Wi-Fi. Jim Harycki, president of Wireless Evolutions, says the company could add more as user demand increases.

Harycki points out that NTC and Gateway Center don’t house officers. These are apartments for the married soldiers ranging in age from 18 to 34. Most have kids. Thus, the network is used not just for standard Internet access, but also for a lot of gaming. The announcement about the deployment quoted one resident who enjoyed not just the roaming freedom on his laptop, but the fact that the Wi-Fi works directly with his Xbox 360.  

At first, Wireless Evolutions thought the two- to three-story buildings would present a challenge for connectivity inside — most have a stucco facade that could bounce wireless signals. Harycki says they overcame that with the BelAir products. The company chose BelAir because of its multiple radio approach, using one radio for backhaul mesh and the other for client connections, and its price-to-performance versus the competition [clarified on 7/13/06].

Still, 802.11 signals going from outside to inside are seldom perfect. They’ve had some signal problems, especially with devices with embedded Wi-Fi. “You can go to a Sam’s Club and buy a laptop for a few hundred dollars — those have problems,” says Harycki.

Harycki said in a follow up to Wi-Fi Planet that “The BelAir solution ensured that the network performance and signal is consistent and strong.” But, perfection remains elusive, as the company sells a 200mw client card from Engenius Technologies for $50 to customers who encounter connection problems. The network isn’t really set up to provide users with a home network that they can control on their own, but he says “most users are okay with that if they can get free Internet.” 

Cox provides cable modem broadband in the communities for those who want a standard Wi-Fi router at home, but that’s not free. Those interested in a Voice over IP service like Vonage would have to have a separate router that Wireless Evolutions will sell. Again, Vonage charges are not included in the free service.

After only being live for a couple of months at NTC and just a couple of weeks at Gateway Center, Wireless Evolutions has about 50 users. Harycki expects to see 40 to 50 percent of the units take advantage of the network. After all, you can’t beat the price.

Outside of a small trial last year, this is the first major Wi-Fi mesh deployment for Wireless Evolutions — it has done 35 other Wi-Fi deployments — and it has high hopes for the future. Working with LMH, which manages from 25,000 to 30,000 military house units in the U.S., could put the company on the map. “We’re encouraged that we can do another 10,000 easily,” says Harycki. It has new areas on the docket, including the Marine Corps. base at Camp Pendleton near San Clemente, California and areas around Quantico, Virginia also managed by LMH. “We’ve got great deployments started, with other customers waiting to see how it goes. Lincoln is encouraging because of their sheer numbers.”

All support calls go directly to Wireless Evolutions — that’s where it makes its money, via the recurring back-end support fee it gets from LMH. They make more with a smooth running infrastructure in place, so Harycki says, “Doing it right the first time, that’s important to us… our motivation is to build it. Do it right, but do it quickly, as many units as we can.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that providing service for these families in particular just feels good. “It’s nice to be doing this for the military,” says Harycki. “A lot of these folks have husbands or wives overseas.”

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