Portland, Ore., has been vying for the title of "Most Unwired City"
in the United States for a while, as it quickly embraces public access wireless.
It was even ranked number one in such a study funded by Intel, which took into
account Wi-Fi hotspots, cellular coverage, and total Internet access penetration.
Portland, or more specifically its suburb of Milwaukie, is also home to the
fourth biggest comic book publishing company in America, Dark Horse Comics.
Unlike the big guys, Marvel and DC Comics, Dark Horse doesn’t concentrate on
flooding the market with only spandex-clad superhero adventures. For close to
20 years the company’s graphic literature has featured some of the best horror,
science fiction, humor and action characters in the industry. They were responsible
for creating The Mask (and publisher Mike Richardson was a producer on
the 1994 film version of "The Mask" that made Jim
Carrey a household name), and currently produce books based on licenses from
Wars," "Buffy the Vampire
Slayer," the rock band KISS, "Aliens," and much more. Their
original publications include such diverse characters as the bizarre Flaming Carrot, the master criminal Grendel,
the thoughtful Concrete, and
the adventures of the world’s greatest paranormal investigator known as Hellboy — a character that will also be in
a major motion picture of his own in 2004. They also run comic shops, an online store, and more.
All that didn’t make it any easier for the company when they expanded into
space across the street from their main office. For that, they needed wireless.
Lucky for Dark Horse, they’re in the Most Unwired City.
Voice over IP
Dark Horse doesn’t actually have a wireless LAN yet — they’re a few months
from that, according to company IS Technician Shawn Welter.
What they do have are offices spread around four blocks in the Milwaukie downtown
area. Six months ago, throughout all their offices, they replaced their "ancient
PBX," ran Cat5e Ethernet cable to almost all corners of their existing
buildings, and now have a voice over IP (VoIP) phone system Mitel
Phones, for 80 to 85 employees. These phones are also not wireless.
But use of the phones seemed not to be in the cards for the new space Dark
Horse was expanding into across the street from their headquarters.
"The infrastructure in this town, this suburb of Portland, is kind of
poor," Welter says. "We’ve been able to pull fiber to the north, but
not the west." The connection to the new location, which houses about 20
employees, not only had to support data and voice traffic for the network, but
also had to be inexpensive, since use of the space could end up being temporary.
Digging up the busy street to lay a cable was certainly not an option.
So Welter went online looking for a solution.
The Personal Telco Connection
Nigel Ballard is a proponent of wireless through his JoeJava.com site and does WLAN deployments
professionally as the director of Wireless for Matrix Networks — the company that
hooked up Dark Horse with its VoIP phone systems.
Ballard is also on the board of advisors for the Personal Telco Project, the community
Wi-Fi group looking to provide free public access to Wi-Fi users in Portland.
In his day job, Ballard had just had the opportunity to play with two Buffalo Technology
AirStation 54Mbps Broadband Router APs (Model: WBR-G54), which use the draft
standard for 2.4GHz 802.11g.
Somewhat unique to these routers is support for wireless distribution system
(WDS), which basically lets two WBR-G54s connect as a direct point-to-point
bridge to each other using their MAC addresses. (Buffalo says they’re also coming
out with a standalone product that’s just a bridge alone, but it’ll only cost
about $10 less than the $199 WBR-G54).
After trying the bridge function and getting what he considered great results,
Ballard posted a note about it to the Personal Telco Web site. That just happened
to be where Shawn Welter was looking for a wireless solution to his bridging
"In an hour we were trying to contact each other with the same solution,"
says Welter. "It’s a stop gap instead of spending a lot of money and can
later be repurposed for other things."
Bridging the Gap
The deployment of the bridge took place quickly, over the course of a week
in March. Because the Dark Horse phone system was VoIP, the connection between
the buildings didn’t need to handle anything but IP traffic, which the Buffalo
routers would handle with speeds of 54Mbps (more like 14Mbps in real world,
but still more than enough to handle the voice traffic in the new location).
Each G54 is "like a shoe box — one is on each side of the road,"
Ballard says. "You put the Ethernet cable from the network on each side
into each shoe box. Both then form an invisible RF bridge over the road. It’s
like slinging an Ethernet cable over the road."
The hardest part of the installation involved the outdoor antennas — on one
side of the street the mounted antenna had a cable going back to the "shoe
box" through wood, but the new location required drilling though concrete.
The highly directional antennas were mounted and angled to point at each other
— that was pretty much it.
Welter says there was a short transition period as people got used to the connection,
but so far the speed has been more than adequate to handle voice traffic and
data from the location across the street.
"The Mitel phone system doesn’t need heavy bandwidth — it needs low latency
and zero packet loss. If it can’t reassemble the packets, you get glitches in
"I don’t know what throughput I should be expecting," he says, but
"we’re getting better than 802.11b. It’s definitely faster." The numbers
in his tests are consistently in the 12 to 14Mbps range. It’s possible that
the speed could go up with the 802.11g specification is finalized later this
year and necessary upgrades are performed
Ballard says the model would be easy to replicate, but admits that 802.11g
wouldn’t be the right technology for going a longer distance and points to Redline
Communications, a provider of fixed wireless connection equipment, as an
alternative; he calls them "the Cadillac of wireless, but expensive."
Luckily, because of the short distance involved, the cheaper 54g routers seem
to have done the trick for Dark Horse.