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June 10, 2015

Copper's Not Dead Yet: 'Caravan' Uses Almost Stationary Wi-Fi

It caught my eye as the press releases in my inbox continue to accumulate. It focused on “Remote Villages” accessing Wi-Fi with existing “telephone lines.”  The fact that it was in Dubai added to the exotic nature of the headline.

The press release started as follows:

Dubai, United Arab Emirates – The UAE’s National Catering Company (NCC) has implemented Zebra Technologies Corporation’s T5 Power Broadband solution to connect 234 residential caravans in the remote desert area of Al-Ruwais near Abu Dhabi. Using NCC’s current telephone wiring for fast, easy and cost-effective upgrades, the new system offers high-speed Wi-Fi service to improve residents’ experience with uninterrupted connectivity for all their mobile devices.

So how I read this was that the phone wiring was no longer being connected for phone service, but instead for all packet-based solutions with the gateway, in effect reclaiming rather than abandoning copper. This offers many interesting possibilities for so many of us with a stranded investment.

Then came the simplicity of the migration:

NCC estimates significant cost savings compared to the alternative high-speed (CAT 6 cabling) network, and it can rely on the scalability of the solution to meet future customer demand with minimal cost and easy maintenance. The upgrade in each residential caravan was completed in minutes – eliminating the need for complex and costly installations and without the need to rip and replace any existing wiring. NCC’s Business DNA, partnering with Data Capture Systems (DCS), was able to complete the project in two weeks – half the time of deploying alternative cabling infrastructures.

I figured I had to explore further so I did an interview with Tariq Hasan, regional sales manager of Enterprise Networking and Communication for the Middle East and North Africa with Zebra Technologies.

Here’s what transpired:

Carl Ford: Please explain the term caravan; are people's homes mobile here? How does that impact the network architecture?

Tariq Hasan: These are remote camps made from portacabins that are used to build homes for workers in the middle of the desert. For example, these are built for workers at oil drilling sites and are intended to be temporary structures – but they’re not mobile. As such, these camps do not have structured network cabling and; therefore, a solution using telephone cable was ideal.

CF: Are there end points that mesh the Wi-Fi together, or is the network using the existing wiring as antennas?

TH: We installed a Wi-Fi access point in the portacabins that was connected to the end point of the telephone wire in the room. The data can then be backhauled to a communications room that acts as an aggregation point from where information goes out to the Internet. This can be done over a point-to-point wireless link or multiple 3G/4G connections.

CF: Given the residential nature of this implementation, how does cost recovery occur? Is this a pay as you go service, or a monthly subscription, or free based on association?

TH: Our client, NCC, is able to manage these camps and provide Internet services to the workers staying in these camps. As previously discussed, NCC will act as a contractor in providing wireless services that they will be paid for. Since our client provides the Internet connection, they now act like a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) in addition to their normal function as a catering and allied services company. This is not common, but we believe that this will be a trend that will increasingly catch on. Regarding cost recovery, the NCC will be charging end-users as part of their service offerings so initial costs will be recouped.

CF: Where else would this implementation be useful? Is this ideal for agricultural communities? Ad hoc locations?

TH: Such an implementation could be useful in any situation where a quick Wi-Fi installation is required, but the use of existing telephone cables is a possibility. For example, it could be done with historic properties where laying conduits or cables is not permitted by law in order to preserve the structure. Sites where basic telephony has been provided makes installing structured cat5/6 cabling difficult primarily due to costs. It is also useful for large sites such as resorts that are spread over a large area. Such sites would need fiber to be pulled between buildings or chalets, raising the costs of providing Internet or cable TV. This could be easily done using our solution over existing telephone wire.

CF: You mentioned all the devices connecting. What is the bandwidth capacity and can it be supplemented if the community increases their use of the system?

TH: The access points are 802.11n and can work at a 300 mbps data rate with an actual throughput of more than 100 mbps. For comparison’s sake, a good connection for home applications such as gaming and streaming video would be about 8 to 16 mbps. The bottleneck is the gateway to the Internet, which can always be supplemented with additional capacity if required.

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