Waikato Wireless

Frustrated by poor Internet access in regional areas, a NZ project is
developing a wireless, last mile alternative.

The Waikato Wireless Project aims to develop a new platform that can be used
to deploy future generations of high bandwidth (>10Mbps) wireless networks
in rural and remote parts of New Zealand (NZ).



“It is widely recognised that telecommunications access in rural areas of New
Zealand is poor,” says Dr Murray Pearson, senior lecturer, Department
of Computer Science
, University of Waikato,
New Zealand. The project leader adds, “it’s increasingly becoming a barrier
to businesses, including farmers, competing in the global economy.”


The WAND (Waikato Applied Network Dynamics)
networking research group in the Department of Computer Science at the University
of Waikato started the CRCnet (Connecting Remote Communities
Network)
.


The group spoke to a number of rural community groups including schools who
were frustrated by trying to get a decent Internet connection. “In many rural
areas it is difficult to get any form of connection,” says Pearson. “The phone
lines are low quality and things like poorly earthed electric fences can also
cause real problems.”


The research, he says, “will explore the use of high performance point-to-point
wireless protocols and the deployment of a redundant mesh structure. Today’s
network management protocols are not adequate to support a highly redundant
mesh of links whose characteristics change frequently. The focus of the research
is on developing a new generation of wireless data and management protocols
that will remove significant barriers to meeting the potential of wireless technologies
in the rural environment.


Similar to Australia, Pearson says NZ telcos “have been reluctant to provide
broadband access to rural areas because of the low population density and high
cost of installation. Despite this, the current government have identified providing
broadband access to rural communities as an important factor to economic success
of the country into the future. They are currently funding the PROBE
(Provincial Broadband Extension) project
to encourage the deployment of
broad band networks in rural areas.” Wireless technologies are likely to be
one of the key technologies used in this deployment, he says.


Waikato is building CRCnet in a rural area to the west of Hamilton. The first
link, 13.4km in length at a nominal bandwidth of 11Mbps, has been operational
since December 2001. Since this time, they have installed a further four links
ranging from 2.5km to 17km in length. To mirror realistic environments, one
of the sites is a solar powered repeater half way up a mountain with no power.
This solar power site has been operational since March of this year.


“The next three links are in the process of being deployed,” Pearson says.
“Experience with this deployment has identified a number of issues, such as poor
link efficiency, that must be addressed before large broadband wireless networks
can be deployed economically in rural areas.”


Seed funding was provided by the University Department and they have just
secured funding of NZ$927 000 (approx. AU$800 000) over the next three years
from the New Zealand Foundation for Research,
Science and Technology
.


“We are currently using Orinoco radio cards running the standard 802.11b
protocol,” says Pearson. “These cards are mostly hosted in Linux machines
although we are using a small number of access points at present. Most of the
Linux machines are three to five year computers that have been retired from
their original use.”


He adds, “in places where power is an issue, we have a number of biscuit
computers (3.5 inches per side, completely solid state, a single 5V power input
and low power consumption) have been used. At present it is marginal whether an
installation is cost effective. But as the price of wireless gear continues fall
and we develop our own technology we believe we will be able to make it
cost-effective.” As the costs of wireless products continue to drop, and the
group develop their own technology, Pearson believes the network will be cost
effective.


But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing and Waikato has experienced a number of
challenges setting up the project.


Firstly, says Pearson, “the wet summer made access to some sites extremely
difficult and progress was much slower than expected.”


Sorting through the large wealth of information, some of it conflicting, and
deciding what was technically possible and legal was the second key
challenge.


He points to power as another key challenge. “Getting power to some sites is
either not an option or is very expensive. Solar powered sites are expensive so
would need to support a large number of users to make them worthwhile. We are
look at a number of lower powered options that make it possible to reduce the
cost of a solar powered site.”


Finally, Pearson concludes, “planning the locations for repeater sites has
[also] proved much more difficult than expected,” he continues, “relying to
heavily on topographical map, which don’t show things like the height of trees,
in this process can lead to some surprises. At this stage we are unaware of any
substitute for spending lots of time driving around with a pair of binoculars to
make sure ‘line of sight is possible’.”


That issue also reflects one of the limitations of wireless in regional
areas, according to Pearson.


“The limitations tend to be determined by the landscape,” he says. “For
example in densely populated areas the number of channels can potentially be a
real problem particularly if multiple wireless ISP’s are operating in the area.
In this situation interference can be a real problem.”


He continues, “in gentle rolling country side with lots of trees coverage can
be a real problem. While the distances between nodes can be quite small it might
not be possible to set up a link between them – one or more intermediate links
may be required. This is the ‘line of sight requirement’.”


Despite the challenges, network use has been positive.


“The project started about eight months ago,” Pearson explains, “and we have
spent quite a lot of this time learning about the technology and how to deploy
it. Nevertheless, at present we have two houses and two schools connected to the
network. In the near future we have plans to add another six schools and a
reasonable number of houses. Most of the traffic is currently web
traffic.”


The group have also held a number successful of video conferences (at 384
kbps) over the network. They are currently looking at a number of new
applications that can be used over the network.


NOTE: If you would like to meet and hear more from Murray, he will be speaking
at our 802.11 wireless networking conference on September 19 and 20 in Sydney.
Early bird registrations close soon! Visit http://australia.internet.com/events/80211


Reprinted from australia.internet.com.

News Around the Web