Wide open spaces

Providing network access to a remote site can be a formidable challenge, but Middle Eastern providers are increasingly able to deliver a sophisticated, reliable service, thanks to developments in modern wireless equipment

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By  Eliot Beer Published  September 3, 2006

|~|spaces200.jpg|~||~|A small community, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest major town; a remote farm a day’s drive from a wired phone; a relief aid camp, set up in hours to respond to a disaster. All of these pose exactly the same problem from a communications point of view – how to set up a reliable, cost-effective link to the outside world. The Middle East has more than its fair share of these sites, but even developed countries such as the US still have areas untouched by copper cable. Wherever there is an isolated community, the easiest solution is to deploy a satellite link, and distribute it on the ground. But while the satellite link-up is now relatively straight-forward, actually utilising this over anything other than a small area presents a number of technical and logistical challenges: if the community is small but widespread, how can the link be distributed cost-effectively? How can challenging topography be overcome? How can network managers maintain the ground-based infrastructure effectively? For many organisations faced with these issues, wireless technology can be an extremely effective way of tackling the majority. But as wireless implementations can be complex and specialised even at the Wi-Fi LAN level, deploying the various types of system in a harsh environment requires even more care – although there are certain advantages. “Deploying a wireless LAN in a remote site is actually easier than deploying it in a city,” says Tariq Hassan, sales support manager for Symbol Middle East. “The reason I say that, is that cities tend to get polluted with wireless. Recently I was at a site in Saudi Arabia, an industrial area, and when I ran an RF analyser I could see a dozen different networks. What people do is buy a cheap access point and run it at full power without a site survey – ruining the ‘air’ at their neighbours’ locations. At remote sites, though, a big challenge is not being able to keep a trained person on hand – it’snot worth it.” Hasan highlights an area which is of critical importance to remote network sites – maintenance. This can be an issue not just of distance and expense, but also of geography; if a transceiver site is in mountainous terrain, for example, it may be physically impossible to access it for long periods of time, due to conditions such as rain or snow. Anwar Shwaikh, project manager at E-Saudi, has worked on a number of projects in remote locations, including several in the mountainous areas around Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia: “There are areas there where the Saudi Telecom infrastructure doesn’t reach. In that area, it is very difficult terrain, with mountains, which causes particular problems.” Shwaikh says the solution to working in topographically tough locations is to do a thorough site survey – he recounts a story about having to redo part of a survey after finding he was looking at the wrong mountain – and to use appropriate technology. In this case, efficient, directional wireless antennas provide much better results than cheaper omni-directional equipment. This can increase the efficiency of individual sites, cutting down on the number required.||**|||~||~||~|The other major factor in making sure maintenance visits to remote wireless nodes are infrequent (although hopefully not irregular), is the standard of the equipment used, in terms of build quality. Hani Diya, director of sales at International Access, a Lebanon-based integrator which specialises in remote access projects in Africa and the Middle East, says that using carrier-class systems can reap benefits in the long term. “We have wireless systems which have been up and running since November 1999 - even before we started International Access,” says Diya. “When you manage to source products which are really tested, they really last, with only routine maintenance. Six or seven years is not unusual at all.” Leo Psaras, director of International Access’s distributor, Minerva, adds: “We only sell carrier-class systems to our resellers, because of their sustainability in this environment. Ambient temperatures of 60C-plus in direct sunlight – most products will fail, unless they’re carrier-class. It’s a case of buying a product that has been tested to withstand these harsh environments over time.” Diya says that the time his company invested in testing these products was key – it took time to come up with systems which would last in harsh conditions. He also explains that remote software diagnosis tools mean that most of the time engineer visits are not necessary, and equipment can be reconfigured from a head office. Symbol’s Hasan reinforces the point: “Remote Wireless deployments are not as much a issue today as it would be say a couple of years ago, because today we have management tools that can take care of all the challenges of a remote site, which include deployment, support and management.” He adds that Symbol has a tool offering remote management services, which he says can replicate an on-site visit. A technology which is becoming increasingly important in deploying robust wireless networks is mesh. A mesh wireless network consists of a number of nodes which overlap their coverage – this allows a user on the network to switch from one node to another in range, in the event of any single node failing. Symbol and Motorola both use the technology, which is currently making waves in Europe and the US as a potential upset for urban telecoms providers: an inexpensive mesh network deployed over an urban area (using street lamps, for example, as sites for nodes), which is then supplied by a public-service internet connection, could be used to make VoIP calls as an alternative to cellular mobile calling. In practical terms for the Middle East, though, mesh offers an effective way to supply a relatively large area with a self-healing wireless network connection. Minerva’s Psaras says that while the costs might be slightly higher (more of a factor in the price-sensitive Middle East than in the West), enterprises and remote ISPs are prepared to pay the small premium for more reliable service. ||**|||~||~||~|A key factor in the reliability of a network, especially in remote areas, is power supply. While most locations do not suffer quite as acutely as installations in Iraq (see page 31), reliable continuous power supplies are often hard to come by in terrain such as deserts and mountains – areas most likely to benefit from a remote access network project. E-Saudi’s Shwaikh says for his projects, the best solution has been to fit UPS systems to wireless nodes: “We always suffer from power availability, but the Layer Wi-Fi has a built-in UPS for two hours’ reserve. So if the power goes down, or if there’s a spike, it will switch to the battery. Simultaneously, it will send an email to the network manager that the system has a power problem – so the manager can shut down the network, or make other arrangements, before the whole system goes down.” The other critical aspect for managing these networks, especially those functioning as remote ISPs, is bandwidth allocation. With only a limited amount of expensive satellite bandwidth, ISPs need to ensure their customers receive the appropriate allocations. Many vendors support the operation of VLANs, which can be configured to give certain levels of access and service to customers at a particular tier. Quality of service capabilities –growing in popularity among wireless networking products – can also ensure network managers can adhere to service level agreements. Wireless technology is still a fast-evolving area, even in the dynamic standards of the IT industry. In terms of keeping staff trained on the emerging technologies, techniques and standards which appear across wireless systems on a regular basis, remote sites in the Middle East are at a double disadvantage. Long-standing skills issues in the region mean skill levels here are lower to start with, compared to the US or Europe; at the same time, the very nature of remote deployments means the chances of trained personnel being near enough to assist are slimmer again. One of the solutions is to cut down the maintenance needed, as with the self-healing networks and remote management tools above. But vendors and the channel alike are starting to take training more seriously – Minerva usually conducts training sessions for its partners twice a month. And International Access, for one, gives its customers a four-hour response time for any problems, even in distant parts of Africa. It achieves this by making sure it does have trained personnel on the ground, and by ensuring the reliability of its products before deploying them. “There are always times when you need someone to visit a site on the ground,” says Diya. “But with time these visits are becoming more and more minimal.”||**||

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