Features: October 1st, 2002

Misconceptions of Wireless Technology

By John Whitty

Electronic links between the citizen and Local Authorities give citizens an increased choice of how they wish to interact with the Council. For example they can use email, contact centre, one-stop-shop, interactive website or information kiosks. Faced with the demanding targets set by Government to go online by 2005, Local Authorities are considering wireless microwave Internet connections as the solution to give them peace of mind when dealing with time sensitive and confidential queries online.

Rather than being tethered down by various cabling and fibre systems, radio is seen as a complimentary technology that will provide solutions where cable is not practical, or is just plain expensive. However, despite providing a quicker, more reliable, flexible and cost-effective alternative to leased line solutions, many remain sceptical as to whether this technology is safe, secure and offers good data rates.

There have been numerous misconceptions associated with the technology, including security issues, interference with data transmission, weather susceptibility and the health dangers posed by microwaves. So, are these misconceptions valid or do wireless connections add value to the citizen? Here we dispel the misconceptions about installing a wireless connection and provide some practical advice on what to look for in the telecommunications vendor.

Wireless provides an inflexible solution

So is wireless an inflexible solution? With load-sharing capabilities, wireless solutions route information through truly robust and resilient primary connections, or provide secondary precautionary ‘back-up’ connections to a primary leased line connection.

By ensuring speed to market and providing an efficient up-grade path where bandwidth can be easily increased with as little as 24 hours notice, wireless provides a level of flexibility not available as standard from a traditional leased line Internet connection. This capacity can readily be scaled up as E-Government requirements grow.

A similar fibre connection can take up to three months to install, whereas best providers of wireless connections can normally install wireless connections within four weeks and scale capacity from the minimum bandwidth of 2Mbps up to 155Mbps step-by-step. Wireless solutions also remove the need for expensive underground cabling and running costs.

Contention is also not an issue. Used in towns or cross-country, wireless technology provides a fast effective way to bypass existing local terrestrial service operators. Furthermore, by giving each individual link its own unique frequency, as issued and verified by the Department of Trade and industry, wireless technology is able to bypass any possible issues which shared connections can encounter.

Wireless technology suffers from frequent transmission interference

There are many fears about transmission interference. Testing and configuration procedures carried out at the operating site by trained engineers ensure a complete in-house end-to-end connection. The weakest link in any connection to an Internet Service Provider is the one between the Radio Point of Presence and the operating premises. However, unlike a leased line that is susceptible to disruption, due to workmen or a digger ‘JCB faults’ cutting through underground fibre optic and copper cables, the diversely routed wireless Internet service provides ‘always available’ connections.

Operating on an automatic fail over system, the wireless system can be set up to come on stream instantaneously if the leased line is down, either as a result of failure of peering partners or the equipment in that location. Such transmission media resilience spares the operator the problem of interrupted service.

To benefit from wireless technology organisations must be located near to the telecom operator

Despite businesses needing to be situated in direct line of sight and within a radius of 10km of Radio Point of Presence, wireless is not a technology exclusively reserved for inner-London. To ensure a reliable link for connectivity, regardless of location, telecommunications operators should carry out a full site survey prior to installation. The typical size of a dish deployed at a customer site will be 30cm, and will be placed in a suitable position to ensure the aesthetic appearance of the building is not compromised.

If line of sight is not available, computer–based analysis can be performed to identify any landscape intrusion and determine the location of a mini Point of Presence that will reflect the microwave from there to the operator’s site.

Furthermore, the operator can also agree the location for the indoor unit, typically in the communications room, and the outdoor location unit, which can be installed quickly and easily on the exterior of the premises.

Wireless technology does not offer the same level of security as provided by cable and fibre systems

Security of wireless technology is also a significant concern, but it is extremely difficult to intercept radio communications and threaten the integrity of data being transmitted.

In order to gain access to microwave data transmissions, an interceptor would need to be directly in the path between an organisation’s premises and the Point of Presence. Furthermore, in an additional security step, data transmissions are encoded and would therefore require intercepted messages to be decoded by specialist receivers.

Wireless technology is not resilient to extreme weather conditions

Resilience is another issue of concern. The Point of Presence is often connected to the operator’s site by a using a range of frequencies and as demands on data bandwidth continue to grow, more frequencies will be opened up to accommodate this.

By adopting an over-engineered point to point radio path, microwave will have more than enough compensation for attenuation, introduced due to poor weather – therefore ensuring that the transmission link is reliable. Microwave is not only immune to rain-fade, but also the most atmospheric, densest and most extreme fog, snow, sand storms and thermal shimmer will not limit data transmission, even over long distances. Indeed, the Radio Communications Agency will not issue a frequency to the operator, unless it is convinced that the connection can deliver 99.99% availability.

Wireless poses a threat to the public’s health

It is a common misconception that microwave technology is potentially harmful but this is not the case if correct operating procedures are followed. Microwave in this scenario, emits focused beams that travel across the landscapes, without getting in the way. Thousands of organisations use microwave technology and they do not report any harmful effects.

From this look at the misconceptions which surround wireless technology it is clear that it provides a resilient infrastructure that easily meets the demands of a high capacity connection. It is eminently suitable for Local Authorities and other public services who find that cable is impractical, too expensive, or the installation cannot be delivered quickly enough.

John Whitty is director of engineering, Zipcom, www.zipcom.com, 08000 280008

Zipcom’s wireless access technology partner is Alcatel, a world leader in broadband access technology.