Wi-Fi Vendors Converge on Cellular Approach

Wait long enough and everything old becomes new again. 5G Wireless Solutions says it is adopting a cellular-like philosophy touting a 4 km range for its campus-wide and municipal Wi-Fi base station. High-profile competitors, however, dismiss the claim as old hat.

Two-year-old 5G Wireless Solutions markets a line of point-to-point and point-to-multipoint “last-mile” 802.11b/g base stations to universities, municipalities and the healthcare industry, says Carl Weisman, 5G’s Senior Engineer.

“We believe our cellular approach to Wi-Fi is the first of its kind,” said Weisman in a statement, calling it a a combination of technology and philosophy.

“We’re all about these base stations,” says Weisman, referring to antennae dividing an area into 120-degree sectors. A three-panel antenna array providing 360-degree coverage resembles a cellular base station.

The antenna array extends Wi-Fi’s range to up to two miles in 802.11b mode and nearly one mile using 802.11g. The antennae array employs 802.11a for simultaneous backhaul.

“5G has always been in the ‘cellular’ Wi-Fi business,” Weisman says. The company will integrate its cellular concept into its line of G-Force gear. The move changes “our antenna deployment to more closely match that of the cellular guys,” explains Weisman.

The cellular approach is undergoing beta testing at 5G’s Marina Del-Ray headquarters and expects to ship later this year.

Sketchy Details

While some details of 5G’s plans are known – such as using the Atheros 802.11b/g chipset – other points aren’t so clear.

Just how 5G accomplishes the extended range is sketchy. “There are some proprietary things we do to maximize range,” explains Weisman. While the company touts a 4 km range for its base station, “we can go 400 meters easily,” according to Weisman. A rooftop 5G base station can reportedly replace between 50 and 60 traditional APs. One base station supports up to 600 users “doing normal wireless things.” The company’s G-Force base station boasts supporting 1,000 users.

While lack of interference with nearby cell towers is cited as an advantage of 5G’s Wi-Fi base station, he was unable to confirm this. The two technologies don’t share the same frequencies.

In the past 5G has described its products employing proprietary “enhancements” to 802.11b, including tweaking the standard allowing non-line of sight operation.

Weisman refuses to say how much a cellular concept-driven system will cost. The 5G exec explains “we’ve been burned on that before.”

The base station distributes Wi-Fi using 802.11b/g with three non-overlapping channels while employing 802.11a with 12 non-overlapping channels for backhaul. Wouldn’t 802.11a make more sense for distribution? Most campuses and municipal Wi-Fi deployments don’t use 802.11a, explains Weisman. If demand changes, the base station will use 11a for distribution.

Only Upgrades

5G’s cellular approach to Wi-Fi is more than base stations. “We’re dramatically reducing operating expenditures through reduced network administration and maintenance,” said Weisman. The cellular shift “enhances our ‘less is more’ value proposition by dramatically reducing Total Cost of Ownership in large-scale deployments.”

5G rejects what it calls the “dense AP approach” commonly used in enterprises where many access points are employed for high capacity and redundancy. As the market for new deployments slows, 5G believes vendors are limited to upgrades and add-ons of more and more features.

A cellular approach is marked by fewer APs, moderate capacity and no redundancy.

Another key difference between the cellular philosophy and traditional Wi-Fi is the nearly-obsessive drive for blanket coverage, according to Weisman. “90% coverage is OK for cellular guys.”

In the hotspot and enterprise market the only opportunity remaining is upgrading hardware. The campus and metropolitan Wi-Fi sectors are different: “They are real growth markets,” believes Weisman.

While less Wi-Fi equipment to deploy would be convenient, problems such as gaps in coverage can arise for certain demanding applications, such as voice, according to Alan Nogee, In-Stat analyst. His research on growth of Voice-over-Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) phones is cited by 5G. With the possibility of cellular carriers offering broadband along with traditional services this “now represents an emerging market for us,” according to Weisman.

Nothing New

Vivato, one of 5G’s muni Wi-Fi competitors, says talk of a cellular approach to Wi-Fi is nothing new.

“We consider ourselves a cellular company,” says company founder Bob Conley.

Vivato recently covered a 15-mile stretch north of Kitty Hawk, NC using two base stations. “We prefer mounting near cell gear,” says Glenn Booth, Vivato’s marketing director. In Spokane, WA, Vivato’s panels are less than 10-feet away from a cell tower, according to Booth.

5G counters that Vivato’s panels won’t work in all situations. For example, 5G sees the shipping sector as a promising market for its base station. Vivato’s large panels don’t lend themselves to the shipping port environment, says Weisman. He says 5G’s base stations are able to ‘look down’ into a port’s site. (That said, Vivato’s panels are installed at the Port of Seattle.)

Booth says the concept of antennae dividing areas into sectors has long been used. Vivato’s Wi-Fi panels offer 110-degree coverage. Startup Xirrus uses sectorized antennae indoors to create a WLAN Array for enterprises. Are the products similar? The Xirrus device, looking like an over-sized smoke detector, creates nearly a Gigabit of Wi-Fi bandwidth using up to 16 802.11 channels assigned to an individual RF sector.

“5G’s product uses three 120-degree sectors in a non-coordinated fashion producing no improvements in aggregate bandwidth,” says Xirrus marketing director John DiGiovanni.

What’s the future hold for 5G Wireless? “We’re gonna start mimicking everything the cellular guys do,” says Weisman. “Just look at the cellular guys to see where we’re going.”

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