Many of us who ride the city rails are all too familiar with lost signals once a train or subway hits the underground tunnel. Now, Amtrak customers of the New York City region no longer have to worry about losing coverage. To eliminate interrupted W-Fi signals on Amtrak Acela Express trains in the tunnels under the East River and Hudson River, systems Integrator OCLMedia installed a wireless mesh infrastructure from Firetide, Los Gatos, Calif., to establish connection from the mesh nodes on the train to the mesh nodes alongside the tunnel.
“Previously, Amtrak had no way to network the access points in the tunnels. They are now using mesh for both connecting mobile nodes to the fixed nodes, and alongside the tunnels as a fiber replacement,” explained Ksenia Coffman, senior marketing manager of Firetide. “This approach enabled Amtrak to complete this project in two to three months versus the two to three years it would have taken them to deploy with fiber. Plus, the connectivity between the moving train and the trackside infrastructure can only be done with mesh.” Previously, when a train entered a tunnel, Wi-Fi coverage was interrupted due to a lack of cellular broadband signal. 12 miles of tunnels in New York City are now covered by the wireless mesh solution.
The state of mesh
SD&I sat down with Firetide’s Ksenia Coffman to hear some of her thoughts on the current developments in wireless mesh infrastructures, challenges that integrators face and the future of it all.
How does Firetide differentiate themselves from some of the other wireless mesh providers in today’s market?
Coffman: Our infrastructure is more than just video mesh—it has been designed from the ground up to support large scale video, voice and data services. This year we are branching out to address the wireless LAN market and point-to-point market for simpler installations that don’t required the sophisticated designs of mesh. We deliver up to 300 Mbps capacity – in point-to-point configuration or as overall mesh capacity. Over multiple hops you get 100 to 150 Mbps and you can expand that virtually over unlimited territories. There is a lot of interest in infrastructure mobility, especially in transportation—the project with Amtrak is just one example of that.
What is the typical area range that a mesh network can cover?
Coffman: Wireless mesh is not subject to the same limitations as standard-based Wi-Fi access is; we have projects utilizing mesh links of over 20 miles. The capacity is also much higher—it is a completely different market compared to Wi-Fi access or cellular broadband. We’re talking about the networks that the user would own rather than relying on the service provider to provide the bandwidth. And even though there may be a perception that LTE is going to eliminate the need for mesh-type networks for video surveillance, that is not the case because the spectrum availability is fairly limited and if you want to own a big chunk of that spectrum for your video traffic, it will cost you a very hefty sum.
What would benefit a customer in choosing a private network versus a public network?
Coffman: It is a matter of control. On a private network, you know that you are the only user on that network and you are not subject to the service providers maintenance schedules. It’s a matter of renting versus owning—whether you are paying the cost over time or you are paying the one-time cost to build out the network that you amortize over time. You also have more control over physical or operational security of the network itself.
The integrators that Firetide works with, do they understand the capabilities and intricacies of wireless mesh versus that of fiber and cable?
Coffman: Obviously, the major benefit with wireless mesh is the cost reduction. Typically, the cost of mesh would be 10-20 percent of the cost of fiber. It will not give you 1 Gigabit but it will give you sufficient bandwidth for your project at 1/10th of the cost. It is very important that the network is designed, engineered and deployed properly, which is why we recommend that customers work with certified developers and installers because the margin for error is not as wide as on a fiber or cable deployment. Now, people are more aware that wireless mesh is not plug-and-play. Firetide has a certification program that the channel has to go through and we spend a lot of time educating our channel. We always recommend that the end-user selects an installer who is certified on a particular technology.
What new developments are we witnessing in wireless mesh networks? Is there a mesh standard in the works?
Coffman: There is an 802.11s standard for mesh that is being worked on but it’s far from ratification. I don’t think mesh is moving in the direction of the standard just yet, like we are seeing with ONVIF and PSIA on the IP camera side. Even if it does, there still will be proprietary extensions that the customer may want to opt for to truly realize the value proposition of Firetide’s mesh, for example.
Capacity is a big driving factor in mesh developments—we are always thinking of way to increase the efficiency of the protocol or we’re watching developments on the radio side. 802.11n was the big development a few years ago. Now we are working on increasing the efficiency of the routing protocol itself so there is more bandwidth available to the data traffic rather than management traffic.
What does this mean for Firetide?
Coffman: Video surveillance and security, as well as the municipal, commercial and transportation sectors will always remain our focus. But we are expanding into point-to-point wireless for smaller projects and we are going into enterprise indoor/outdoor Wi-Fi and wireless LANs. By doing so we have increased the size of our addressable market by a factor of 10. This year, we also expect that 20 percent of our revenue will come from OEM partnerships.
You mentioned that part of Firetide’s focus is in combining wireless mesh and WLAN to deliver an all-wireless network (300 Mbps) that can support voice, video and data applications that use up a lot of bandwidth. Do you foresee other capabilities that mesh networks will be able to support in the future?
Coffman: The market is changing so rapidly. For example, we are on our fifth generation of mesh product. Every two years we are bringing out a new mesh solution. But the secret sauce is really not in the hardware but in the routing side. You can probably expect us to look more at license bands, in addition to 4.9 GHz. Our routing is radio agnostic and it can work on a licensed band as well. As we expand more into the service provider market, we could potentially bring out a licensed product.
Stay tuned for more coverage on wireless mesh networks in Security Dealer & Integrator’s April issue.
Assistant Editor, Security Dealer & Integrator