Turning up the Heat

Cerritos, Calif., becomes one giant Wi-Fi hotspot.

by / March 5, 2004
Cerritos, Calif., located 26 miles southeast of Los Angeles, has gone down in technological history as the first American municipality to be completely blanketed by Wi-Fi.

Aiirmesh Wireless, previously Aiirnet Wireless, made wireless broadband access available to Cerritos' 51,000 residents, and later created the adaptive, self-organizing, scalable, wireless mesh network covering Cerritos.

City officials in Cerritos were not excited about being in the forefront of a significant technological development. Instead, they worked with Woodland Hills-based Aiirmesh simply to solve an increasing sore point for the otherwise upscale community: Many residents did not have reasonably priced broadband access to the Internet via cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL).

Limited Options
Usual solutions for broadband Internet delivery simply weren't viable in Cerritos. No one in the community has cable modem service, and they weren't going to get it anytime soon. The cable TV service in the area, recently sold to Knology Broadband of California Inc., runs on old unshielded cables, which can't carry digital signals. To upgrade this would be very costly and require extensive digging.

In addition, the local phone company, Verizon Communications, couldn't provide DSL service to the southern third of the city because it's too far from the phone company's central hub -- a limitation of DSL technology. This meant that the only broadband access possible for one-third of the city was via satellite, which isn't cheap.

"Residents were complaining," said city spokeswoman Annie Hylton, who also acted as project manager to help usher in the Aiirmesh deal. "So the City Council directed staff to constantly search for options to try to bring broadband to the entire community."

To accomplish this, the city pursued a wireless solution. The first such effort involved Metricom's Ricochet Network, which used older wireless technology that offered far slower speeds than those possible with Wi-Fi. Another problem is that the company charged higher subscriptions than is typical for home broadband access. Eventually Metricom went bankrupt, and the Ricochet Network went dark across the country.

"Cerritos then approached RNI, the company that bought Ricochet Networks, and asked them to reactivate the transmitters that were still in place in Cerritos," said Hylton. "They took a look at the city, but decided they were low on funds and couldn't reactivate in any additional cities."

When two staff members of the new Ricochet Network went out on their own to launch a new company that would use Wi-Fi instead of the older wireless technology, they were already familiar with the Cerritos situation.

"They decided to make Cerritos the first city where they would deploy a Wi-Fi network," Hylton said. The city pitched in and encouraged the effort by offering free access to streetlight poles, traffic lights and building tops they owned and promising 60 city subscriptions to the service once it was up and running.

Not Without Challenges
Cerritos was a challenge because it was attempting what hadn't been done before, according to Aiirmesh Wireless CEO Stan Hirschman.

"No one had written a book on this because the technology development wasn't there a year ago," he said. "It was in the works. But even in our test networks, we were using pre-production radios, and those just became available in commercial versions in the last little while. So all this has been fraught with interesting challenges."

Cerritos entered into the deal with little assurance that it would offer a practical solution to its dilemma. Although Aiirmesh as a company was only conceived one year prior, it's made up of a team of technical experts in radio frequency (RF) technology who were instrumental in redeploying the Ricochet technology for area networks in Denver.

"Those were the people who bought the Metricom assets from the bankruptcy court when Ricochet went dark here in the states," he said. "So they had more practical knowledge of RF technology than any other team we could find -- the emphasis here being on practical technology, what works and what is easy to adapt."

While Wi-Fi technology is developing rapidly, Aiirmesh has standardized on 802.11b. "The fact is this works extremely well," he said. "It is not new and so has already gone through its price curve. It is reliable, and the customer equipment is purchased off any retail shelf."

To pitch benefits of the company's approach, Hirschman cites an information sheet from Intel, which banked on the potential of Wi-Fi by introducing their Centrino Mobile technology.

"In discussing the possibilities for WiMAX, Intel talks about deployment in a large metropolitan area," he said. "They talked about the low cost of user equipment, speed of deployment and a cost factor much more favorable than the traditional wire technology. Well, we are already doing that. They basically wrote a speech for me that describes what Aiirmesh is about."

Cerritos is the first real-world test showcasing what Wi-Fi can deliver in covering a large area. When the Cerritos project was first announced, skeptics raised the possibility of interference creating problems. Because Wi-Fi operates on an unlicensed area of the spectrum, radio collisions can occur. To handle this inevitability, however, Aiirmesh's technology reroutes signals when one path is blocked by interference. Before the Cerritos deployment, Aiirmesh only tested this in a lab setting within a closed building.

For testing outside the lab, Cerritos allowed Aiirmesh to install Wi-Fi clusters in two sections of the city. Some of the city's citizens became, in essence, beta testers for the project. "The result was remarkable and even exceeded our expectations," said Hirschman.

The city gave the final go-ahead for full deployment following the success of these tests, and in mid-January, Aiirmesh began deploying the transmitters for the entire city. The network was expected to be fully operational by the end of February.

For residential customers, the service is advertised as offering 512 Kbps, although it typically runs at about 600 Kbps to 700 Kbps. Residential subscription rates are $39.99 per month, or $29.99 per month with a 12-month commitment. For businesses, Aiirmesh offers a 1 Mbps service that was initially introduced at $199 per month.

While Aiirmesh has not publicly disclosed costs for the Cerritos deployment, none of which the city is paying, Hirschman said it was about 10 percent to 15 percent of costs to deploy the traditional wire-based network. The network can also be easily adjusted based on demand. "When DSL and cable people design networks, they have to plan for the maximum number of people who will use the network," he said. "With wireless, and particularly with mesh technology, it is easy to inject more bandwidth into a cluster or into a community as needed."

That means Aiirmesh doesn't have to overbuild and never faces the risk of under-building. "If we suddenly have a glut of usage in an area, we can easily inject more bandwidth. That is part of the architecture of mesh technology," he added.

Future Municipalities
Once the news about Cerritos broke at the end of 2003, Aiirmesh began receiving inquires from other municipalities.

Aiirmesh has developed a four-phase assessment process to determine whether the community is a good fit for wireless. According to Hirschman, there are line-of-sight issues; there is the question of ownership of the light poles, such as streetlights and traffic lights; and the company must understand the building structures in the municipality so they can give the right type of coverage.

"In some communities, the fire departments have the records for all the high-density buildings, such as office buildings and apartment complexes," Hirschman added. "This is the kind of thing that speeds deployment. So to assess the viability of a project, we have to make a combination of calls. There is a detailed evaluation process we go through, and that is how we are spending a lot of our days now."

Aiirmesh plans to complete deployments similar to Cerritos in 10 additional areas this year. Where that will occur will depend on which municipalities come forward, as well as the suitability and economic potential for a wireless solution.

In some instances, these deployments may be sold to the public through a third party, such as a utility or power company. In some cases, they will be a direct Aiirmesh subscriber service. Whatever the model, because of the need for transmitter facilities, future projects will always be a partnership between the municipality and the provider.

In that way, according to Hirschman, Cerritos is serving as the model for the wireless broadband of the future.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor