Posts Tagged ‘wifi’

nsl_drones_wifi

In the last week there was a bit of buzz about a project by Yan Wan from the University of Texas who, at the Smart America Expo, showed a WiFi enabled drone that *ding* could provide WiFi with a range of up to 5 miles! This was presented as a great step forward in disaster communications. The various articles made it seem like one of these devices would cover a 5 mile area with WiFi.

See for yourself by the viewing the video here.

Having worked in the fields of wifi and disaster response I decided to have a bit of a closer look. Was this really such a step forward and whatsmore, how was this achieved…

Firstly let’s have a look at the hardware, what components were used to build this. The aerial platform is a DJI F650 platform. It’s a nice of the shelf platform. The payload is a Ubiquiti Nanostation. Then there is some sort of servo which rotates the Nanostation. Wether or not the rotation is automatic and slaved to the location of the station the devices connects to or not isn’t clear.

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The Nanostation is a widely used WiFi AP/CPE operating in the 5GHz band. I’ve used them on different occasions and we recently deployed some when working in the Philippines with Disaster Tech Lab. They’re a functional, cheap and cheerful type of device which theoretically can provide up to 150 Mbps on a point-to-point link of up to 15 km.

So in short this project has taken two of the shelf products and bolted them together.

Now for the technical bit; The Nanostation is designed to be one end of a point-to-point link and as with all point-to-point links range/distance is achieved by narrowing the antenna beam. While an omni-directional antenna will cover a 360 degree radius it’s range is limited. A directional antenna, like the one inside the Nanostation, takes the same transmission power (TX) but squeezes it into a narrow bundle. That way the range is much further but the signal radius is much smaller. Any device outside the range of the bundle will not be able to connect. Compare it to standing in a huge dark room and switching on a lightbulb versus a flashlight and you’ll get the picture. In addition the touted range of 5 miles is really not such a big deal. Most of the off the shelf WiFi point-to-point devices have a much longer range. I can recall building a link over 40 kilometers back in 2004 (I think) using homemade gear.

So going back to the implication of this aerial platform; we have a radio device with a narrow beam mounted onto what by definition is an unstable platform. Just ask anyone who has ever build a point-to-point link using masts with a lot of wind-sway how this can kill your connectivity.

Then there is the issue of backhaul; connecting two WiFi devices is great and all but it means very little without a source of internet backhaul. As this is an airborne device using a cable is a big no-no. So a form of wireless backhaul is called for. 3G/4G/LTE? All possible but it will add to the size and weight of the payload as well as require more battery power. In addition, if 3G/4G/LTE is available would that not negate the need for an airborne wifi device?  So satellite maybe? That would mean an ever bigger payload and battery drain. The last option is to consider using lots of these devices and building a WiFi mesh with one or more fixed end-points with internet connectivity. Now this would theoretically be a possibility but there are several factors to consider. using directional antennas on airborne/unstable platforms might cause dropped links. Then there is ones of the bigger drawbacks inherent to WiFi mesh networks; a drop in throughput with every hop (unless you use dual radio devices but that won’t really work here). Lastly there is the logistics and costs of building, deploying and operating a large number of these type of devices.

So considering all the above I can only conclude that it’s a case of much ado about nothing. It might look cool and get much ooh’s and aah’s from the hackathon crowd but there’s really no benefit in this product at all. The cost of the combined package comes to around $1300 (off-hand) with $1000 of that being the aerial platform. Compare that to about $150 for a length of scaffolding pipe, a roof mount kit and some clamps. The latter would also create a link with much more stability.

Ubiquiti-Nanostation-M5-Instalado1

 

If you are looking at a workable application for aerial platform mounted WiFi then look at a combination of a 3G/4G/LTE backhaul device and a WiFi router with an omni directional antenna. That way you can create small bubbles of WiFi that can be flown into hard to reach areas and which are not dependent on a directional link for connectivity.

Even better rather than a means of connectivity provisioning use aerial platforms as sensor networks able to detect wifi or cellular signals transmitted by client devices (smartphones etc) pinpointing people in need.

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Time for a long overdue blogpost.

On January 3rd an email from Tom Hollingsworth landed in my inbox. Now I had never spoken or even emailed with Tom but he’s one of the people behind the “Wireless Field Day” (and a whole lot of other Field Day’s). Tom wanted to know if I was interested in talking about my work with Disaster Tech Lab at the upcoming Wireless Field Day 6 at the end of the month?

DID I HELL!

I had been following the Wireless Field Day events for some time as it was a sort of holy grail for wireless geeks like myself. To get the chance to speak at the event would be magnificent.

Roll forward 3 weeks and I’m actually in San Jose. I arrived late so missed the first evening socializing with my fellow geeks ( This might have been a good thing…). Day one started with everyone jumping into a stretch limo which brought us to Airtight Networks offices. Airtight had a number of interesting presentations lined up for us with introductions into their cloud based services, social wifi and analytics. It followed on with a WIPS demo by Rick Farina. Rick is my kinda guy with lots of experience in security, hacking and related fields. It was entertaining to watch him to bring up the WiFi Pineaple device. Anyway, it was enjoyable and gave some good insights into where Airtight Networks is going.

wifi pineapple

Next we hopped in the limo which brought us to the Aruba Networks offices. This was a bit of a big deal for me as Aruba has been a great supporter of Disaster Tech Lab from right back when we started in 2010. Yet this was my first visit to their offices. I wasn’t disappointed as the offices are pretty cool especially the showroom with all numerous devices on display. Being real geeks we even spotted some sort of prototype USB dongles connected to some of the AP’s. I suspect that these were for use with the Meridian software of which we got a nice real life demo using the Aruba Campus App. After a quick welcome by Ozer and Sean it was time for Manju Mahishi to show us about Aruba’s plans with the Meridian software. In short it offers a platform for user and asset tracking allowing such things as public venues to get greater insight into user movement patterns and such. The presentation led to a lively discussion on topics such as privacy as well as technical.

Next was my own presentation on Disaster Tech Lab’s work. Rather that tell you about it I suggest that you watch the video.

Day 2 started bright and early with a presentation by Germán Capdehourat from Plan Ceibal. Plan Ceibal is a state sponsored project in Uruguay which has as goal to bring internet access to all schools. They obviously use a lot of wifi technology but also branch out into user devices and educational content. Projects like these have great value and contribute immensely to children’s education. Germán was followed by Kevin Koster from Cloudpath. Cloudpath does some really advanced stuff with large scale device onboarding and authentication. It’s not really my area of interest but for anyone managing large networks with hundreds or thousands of users their products are well worth looking at. You can watch the full video here.

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Cloudpath was followed by Xirrus. This was going to be an interesting presentation as Xirrus’s presentation at the previous WFD had been very marketing & PR heavy and had been torn to shreds by the attendees. Dirk Gates, founder of Xirrus started of with a good presentation into the company, their history and the future. Next was the absolute highlight of #WFD6 in my opinion. Xirrus had brought in their head of antenna design Avi Hartenstein. Avi, besides really knowing his shit, looks and sounds like a cool extra from a Bond movie. His presentation with into the antenna design into minute details and for someone like me who loves RF it was simply a pleasure to watch.

To end the day we travelled to Extreme Networks office which were by far the flashiest ones with loads of artwork, purple colors and even rotating server racks with flashing lights. Their presentations there gave a lot of insight into Extreme’s large stadium deployments. It’s interesting to see how a lot of the problems encountered in such environments can be resolved through smart RF use. Real life examples illustrated how antenna placement, antenna radiation power, spatial isolation and low TX power are the main contributors to solving a lot of problems.

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I do realise that this is a way too short blogpost to encompass all the awesomeness that was Wireless Field Day 6. I got to spend a couple of days in the company of people whose knowledge and expertise for exceeds mine but who were also hugely entertaining to hang out with. On top of that we were given an royal welcome by the various companies supporting this event and they each went all out to share their technology and visions of the wireless future with us. Lastly I want to give serious kudos to Steven, Tom and everyone else at GestaltIT for organising not only this fantastic event but all the other Field Days they organise. Seriously guys (and galls) it’s impressive.

I also suggest that you go and watch *all* the videos here.

 

There was a lot of publicity a few months ago when the contract to provide free public WiFi in parts of Dublin was put out to tender. As someone with a more than passing interest in that area I blogged about my opinion.

Anyway, things quieted down after the tender was announced and it sort of disappeared  from the news. So much that last week I wondered what had happened and asked around to find out if the contract had been awarded and if so to whom. I fairly quickly found out that the tender had indeed been awarded to the Spanish company Gowex late last month. In itself that’s a good thing as Gowex has a wealth of experience in this area and a good reputation. However what did surprise me is the total absence of any mention of this in the Irish (or other) media. All I could find was a brief mention on the website “Spanish Business“.

 

It’s strange that not even Dublin City Council has issued a press release about something that was given so much publicity previously. One could be forgiven to expect that it being the silly season for news that at least one news publication or website would have had a few column inches to spare for this news but three weeks after the date nothing has been published so far…

 

 

HotelChatter.com has just released their 2012 report on WiFi in hotels. There is some good news bit also still a lot of bad news. Charges as high as $20 per day (or even worse per day AND per device) still exist! On top of that many hotels still use a “regular” DSL line to backhaul ALL their wifi though….

I plan to write a detailed blogpost soon on hotel wifi, what to look for and how to maximise it but for now this excellent infogram contains some interesting details.

Last week Labour Councillor Oisin Quinn announced that his proposal to provide free public wifi in certain parts of Dublin had gone out to tender. This is further than the proposal by FG councillor Naoise O’Muiri in 2007 had gotten when his proposal was dead-ended out of fears that it might be seen as illegal interference in the public telecoms market.

Now as anyone who knows me will confirm I am a staunch supporter of free public WiFi and have come out in support of schemes like this on several occasions. However, while Councillor Quinns idea is in essence well-meaning the whole execution of the tender process is ham-fisted and devoid of any bit of understanding of what providing public wifi actually entails.  DISCLOSURE: I have on several occasions offered councillor Quinn my assistance in speccing and preparing the tender. All on a pro-bono basis. This has not led to any meaningful discussion on the topic.

So, when the RFT was put up on eTenders I quickly logged on to have a look. The RFT consisted out of two documents; the actual tender document and a map of locations where Dublin City Council had decided that the service should be provided. I won’t discuss the actual locations any further than to say that some of them make no sense to me. However the “where” decision is totally up to Dublin City Council as they know Dublin better than me.

The locations are as follows:

  • Smithfield Square
  • Barnardo’s Square
  • Clarendon Street
  • St. Patrick’s Park
  • O’Connell Street Plaza / GPO
  • Temple Bar Square
  • Wolfe Tone Square
  • Frontage to the Convention Centre Dublin
  • Merrion Square
  • Henry Street
  • Grafton Street (on conclusion of current works planned in the Grafton St area)
  • Outdoor amphitheatre located at Civic Offices.

However what really annoys the hell out of me is the utter and complete lacks of any technical specifications from the actual tender document. There is no single attempt to set out the technical & performance criteria for this network. The closest that the document comes to this is by using the terms “wifi” (without any further elaboration if it should be 802.11 a,b,c or n), “Quality of Service ” (without describing what quality this service should be) and “minimum standard of broadband speed” (again without specifying what exactly the minimum acceptable broadband speed is). Futhermore, while it clearly states that the service should include a “The number of minutes of connection per day and/or per session which will be provided free” it also states that Dublin City Council will NOT pay for any of the wifi service or infra-structure. Hence the conclusion can be drawn that whichever bidder is succesful in their bid will only offer the absolute minimum amount of free access and thereby rubbish the claims of “free public wifi for Dublin” that are bandied about. What is absolutely clear by all this is that whoever drafted the RFT had no knowledge whatsoever of what the provision of wifi entitled. Also they didn’t try to get some qualified advice on the matter. This becomes even clearer when one reads the follow-up questions on the RFT and the replies given.

Honesty requires that I admit that the last question was posted by myself but the reply given clearly illustrates the issue. Nobody in Dublin City Council has any idea and they are relying on the tender submission to provide them with sufficient background to make a valid judgement. This approach simply to stupid for words but typifies the general approach by the Irish public sector to technology projects. Not only do they not have any idea that there are different wifi standards they also haven’t got the slightest idea what minimum performance standards to expect. What makes it even more ludicrous is the fact that they really only speak about “internet access” and seem to be ignorant of any other services that this network could be used for. They could take an example from the network being build in San Jose, California. This network will not only provide wifi access, it will also support a myriad of new applications such as high-definition video, parking meters and digital parking guidance signs, video surveillance, and traffic signaling. The network will also play a key role in offloading mobile data traffic from congested cellular networks and will be used to backhaul data traffic to the Internet. By not demanding the inclusion of at least half of these services Dublin will get an outdated network and service and rather than an asset to the city it will be an embarrassment.

What I suggested to councillor O’Muiri in 2007 and what I still see as a valid option now is that Dublin city builds the network itself and keeps the ownership of the infra-structure BUT that they provide a number of operators access to the network for the provision of public wifi services. A proposal like this will *not* breach EU legislation in regards to a public sector entity operating in the private market, it will ensure a healthy & ongoing competition in the provision of public wifi and it will also allow Dublin City Council or any commercial operator to provide the above mentioned additional services (high-definition video, parking meters and digital parking guidance signs, video surveillance, and traffic signaling). All this will also generate revenue for the city.

The current plan will almost certainly lead to a sub-standard service with limited free access. What’s more it will have to compete with commercial operators such as BitBuzz who have announced that if they do not win the tender they will provide a competing service in the same areas and Eircom who recently announced an expansion of their wifi hotspot network from 700 to 4000 in the next few years.

As a closing I just want to re-state my offer, if Dublin City Council is interested I am still willing to provide pro-bono assistance. This could even be in evaluating the tender applications. (NOTE: I am not submitting a tender application myself or am in any way linked to any other applicants).

The below figures were released by AT&T last month but I’ve only come across them today as I am seriously behind on my feed due to a house move..

Anyway, the figures released by AT&T show a number of very interesting trends. First of all there is the totally amazing number of 20,000,000 (yes 20 million) individual wifi connections in the space of just 11 days. That’s 1,818,181 connections per day or just over 21 wifi sessions per second! That in itself is an amazing figure but if you want it in perspective; in 2008 it took 1 whole year to reach this number…


It also shows that the prediction that 3G/UMTS would overtake wifi has been proven wrong. To the contrary wifi usage is growing faster than ever. I predicted as much over a year ago. While 3G coverage has become almost ubiquitous the ROI isn’t adding up. 29 euro per month “all you can eat” dataplans have overloaded the networks and operators are frantically looking for ways to offload data. Wifi is really the only game in town offering an acceptable alternate network.


Another interesting figure is the huge increase in connections at hospitality locations. These have tripled within the space of 3 months. Now I have no figures on if and how fast AT&T was extending their network in this period but even a taking into consideration that this includes an expansion of the network it still makes for an impressive number. This again confirms that not only do people expect wifi at a hospitality location, they will also actually use it and use it frequently.

This last infograph shows the rapid rise in wifi usage per quarter from Q1 2008 up to Q2 2011. Usage went from 3,400,000 connections per quarter in Q1 2008 right up to 246,800,000 connections in Q2 2011. That’s a whopping 32 wifi connections per second in Q2 2011! Calculating that over a network of 26,000 wifi hotspots breaks down to 103 individual wifi sessions per hotspot on average. A very respectable number indeed.

Below is the video of I talk I gave recently at the Dublin Ignite event. If anyone is wondering why I speak so fast then look up the concept of Ignite events.