Taking Vo-Fi into the Rugged (and not-so-Rugged) Outdoors

[Editor’s Warning: lengthy backgrounder ahead. If you know about meshes—or don’t care—skip to here. If you know about Firetide, and just want to know what they’re up to lately, skip to here]

If you haven’t heard about wireless mesh network architectures, they are groups of groups of radio-based devices that automatically form an interconnected web—as opposed to the ring and star topologies of traditional wired networks. A mesh network can move data from a server, through the web, to any point within, or on the periphery of the web that’s within transmission range of the node.

Meshes are generally designed to be self-discovering (each node finds its nearby colleagues) and the networks self-healing (when one node goes out, the network simply routes around it).

Most mesh networking products were built around the Wi-Fi standard for wireless LANs, where access points (APs) were programmed to intercommunicate with each other, as well as with the Wi-Fi client devices of end users.

But back in 2003, when the mesh concept first escaped the gravitational field of the military, where the technology was developed (you can easily imagine why such an architecture would be useful in battlefield conditions), one company, California-based Firetide, took a slightly different approach.

According to Manish Chandra, Firetide’s director of product management, instead of making access points do double duty as backhaul and client communication devices the company built a separate infrastructure device to handle backhaul duties.

Firetide’s infrastructure nodes were designed to function as a Layer 2 Ethernet-compliant routing and switching device that would work with any IP network. Each was equipped with a radio (or two) and wired Ethernet ports. You just plug one of them into your wired network, and it just becomes a wireless extension of the network. The nodes were compatible with APs from a number of Wi-Fi equipment vendors.

As Chandra explained to VoIPplanet.com, “If you want to extend that voice over IP network to an outdoor environment, and you cannot lay down cable because it is cost-prohibitive, since we are IP Layer 2 compliant, that network just gets plugged into our infrastructure and we extend it where you cannot lay down cable.”

That led, initially, to adoption in a number of industrial settings, largely for video surveillance, and in healthcare, where a primary application was voice. And the edge Firetide had in these early deployment was bandwidth—which is still a hurdle that Wi-Fi is striving to clear.

Firetide infrastructure nodes are available with a variety of radios, and when dual radio HotPoints (or HotPorts, as they are now called) use their radios in tandem (“bonded,” to use the accepted tech term), they support some 70Mbps of bandwidth, enough to carry multiples of the number of voice calls supported by the then-universal 802.11b Wi-Fi networks.

Last spring, Firetide put into place the last piece of its strategic plan: its own line of Wi-Fi access points (taking the HotPoint name originally attached to the infrastructure nodes).

The combination of infra nodes and APs “gives us end-to-end network coverage,” Chandra told VoIPplanet. It also armed Firetide to do battle in a new arena, municipal wireless networks, which has been trending hot since mid-2005, and which was made feasible only by the appearance of wireless mesh networks.

The company has had considerable success in the muni arena, landing major deployment deals since the fall of ’06. All of which brings us, finally, to Vo-Fi.

Two recent deployments underscore how Firetide is putting its technology to work bringing VoIP to communities small and large.

Late last year, Nyherji, one of Iceland’s leading service providers, deployed a Firetide wireless mesh network and Avaya Communications Manager IP telephony solution to connect the remote communities surrounding the town of Isafjordur to the Internet and to deliver VoIP service.

“The service provider wanted to connect these communities into a single network. But if they wanted to lay down cable, it becomes cost prohibitive,” Chandra said. ” So we went ahead and we integrated our product with Avaya voice over IP products—the call managers, the media servers, the media gateways—and both their wired and wireless voice over IP phones.”

The resulting integrated network has completed its first Arctic winter and is running smoothly. The joint venture with Avaya has also resulted in Firetide’s recenty announced status as “Avaya compliant,” a certification that the two companies’ products interoperate reliably.

The other showcase deployment is building out mesh-based network Wi-Fi connectivity for roughly half of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore’s [email protected] initative, which will provide free Wi-Fi Internet connectivity (initially) and VoIP (in a second phase) to the entire island nation of Singapore.

According to Chandra, aside from the issue of scale, the deal—which was struck in October and will be rolled out over the course of roughly a year—is typical, of municipal deployments nowadays, in that VoIP is a required component.

Not only do municipalities anticipate that their wireless LANs will be used for voice services, but they are looking for seamless connectivity between an indoor (often private) and an outdoor (public) network environment. That is, you might initiate a Vo-Fi call on your company’s WLAN, leave the building, and have that call seamlessly switched over to the public, outdoor Wi-Fi network.

Chandra cites Firetide’s “end-to-end network coverage,” and its indoor/outdoor infrastructure (with its generous bandwidth capability) as making it uniquely adapted to such Vo-Fi initiatives.

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