ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells

Feature Article
July 2003

Wireless Challenges The Channel


Several years ago I followed a vendor�s sales engineer as he breezed through a large hotel surveying the locations to install the radio access points for a cellular carrier�s in-building wireless trial. Requiring only a couple of hours and no tools, the design process seemed extremely simple. The complaints began soon after the service was launched, including one from the hotel�s general manager who had no coverage outside his office door. At the conclusion of the trial the local cellular sales office cancelled the service, disappointing both the vendor and the customer. While equipment and survey processes have since come a long way, this experience highlights some of the challenges faced by 802.11 Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) vendors and their channel partners in delivering wireless products and services to the enterprise.

Customer premise wireless networks are delivered by a variety of equipment distributors, resellers, system integrators and consultants often new to wireless products. Their existing customers typically look first to them for the necessary equipment and radio frequency (RF) design expertise to prove the technology with pilot projects. These suppliers must not only understand wireless, but feel comfortable that these products offer a viable business proposition not undermined by excessive support costs and damaged customer relationships. The onus is on wireless product manufacturers to carefully target their markets and launch the most appropriate channel partners with the necessary product features, training, and support.

The key technical attribute of WLANs -- mobility -- is both the key benefit and source of challenges. Large distributed facilities or campuses with tall buildings, underground structures, and thousands of users require significant understanding of RF characteristics and design. The high frequencies utilized by WLAN equipment are impacted by building materials, vegetation, office furniture, and factory equipment. Jostling an antenna or moving an object in the vicinity can impact the signal coverage. Other types of unlicensed equipment such as cordless phones, microwave ovens and other nearby WLAN systems are all potential sources of interference. Overdesigning the network with unnecessary hardware and cabling can impact the cost and competitiveness of the proposal. Under-designing the network with a strategy of building out later can result in user complaints, increasing support costs, and poor initial customer impression.

The procedure to identify the quantity and locations of access points and antenna design is known as an RF Site Survey. It generally involves the following basic steps:

� Careful assessment of user requirements including coverage areas, number of users, usage patterns, key locations, types of applications, and performance requirements.
� Review of facility blueprints and building materials, followed with a walk-through to note user locations and identify challenging areas or obstacles that may impact or interfere with radio propagation.
� Tests with specialized test equipment to detect the presence of interfering signals. More thorough checks for interference would involve scanning and logging data for a day or more, then repeating the procedure at other key locations. Some identified sources of interference may be eliminated, while others must be factored into the network design.
� Signal propagation tests to determine access point locations. This involves setting up radios at key locations and using portable equipment to test for signal strength and quality in the surrounding areas. With this information access point locations can be mapped and antennas designed to ensure continuous coverage.
� A post-installation survey to ensure complete coverage, sufficient signal strength, and individual access point performance. Access points may need to be moved or added, and antennas may need to be modified to direct the signal coverage to the underserved areas.
� Ongoing periodic RF audits to confirm continued performance and check for unauthorized systems and security breeches.

Interviews with major WLAN equipment manufacturers show that they are responding to the challenges with product design features, and support from internal and third-party resources.

Product ease-of-use and built-in security features are especially important for wireless products purchased directly through retail or distributor channels. According to David Cohen, Director of Wireless Product Management at Actiontec Electronics, �it was important to design features into our products to make it easy for end users without technical wireless backgrounds to install and operate.� One ease-of-use feature is a special client software manager that automatically identifies the network ID and attaches the client without special action on part of the user. For areas that may be covered by multiple networks, it automatically detects and lists the wireless networks operating in the area, allowing the user to scroll down and make the appropriate selection. Simple graphical displays provide the user live feedback on the connection quality and data rates.

Wireless veteran Symbol Technologies offers training at its Symbol University and support programs to drive its large market share in wireless equipment sales. They emphasize the product design of their new Mobius Wireless System and its centralized switching architecture as integral to their efforts to lower costs and simplify wireless deployment for their partners.

Symbol�s Network Business Vice President and General Manager Ray Martino discusses how the new architecture reduces design complexity, �By centralizing the intelligence of the access points and providing features such as Ethernet-based power, what goes into the ceiling is much less expensive than a typical access point. A network planner can be less concerned about the the end-point equipment and power cabling costs and design a more conservative network with more thorough coverage, while engineering up-front for future environmental changes and user growth. Configuring access point parameters and conducting other adminstration functions from the switch also makes it easier for our partners to provide ongoing support to the systems.� Along with the other vendors interviewed, Symbol�s access points have an automatic channel selection feature, which allow them to scan the immediate environment and utilize the least congested channels, simplifying frequency planning.

Maureen Smith, Solutions Marketing Manager at Sunnyvale-based Proxim Corporation stresses the need for comprehensive reseller education and field support. �The wireless technology environment is dynamic and changing, so resellers need to look to their suppliers to provide them ongoing training and structured support programs.� Proxim offers extensive classroom training, which includes site survey design principles, as well as webinars and a partner extranet that provides updated product and technical information. It also provides its distributors training so that they in turn can provide training to the local VARs they support. Proxim even offers its resellers technical training materials they can use to train their end-user customers.

Proxim provides several levels of regional field support including sales, inside sales, and sales engineers available to provide advisory consulting services. The company has also recruited certified installers, which offer site surveys and installation services to both customers and channel partners.

WLAN vendor Aironet was acquired by Cisco in 1999 and quickly gained a large channel partner community. According to Ron Seide, Cisco�s Product Line Manager in the Wireless Networking Business Unit, � Prior to the Cisco acquisition, Aironet worked with a smaller number of wireless-savvy partners. The acquisition brought about the challenge of working with a huge base of Cisco resellers who wanted to include wireless products in their portfolios.�

Cisco has implemented a two-pronged approach of raising the education level of its internal support organizations and the partners, while adding features to the wireless product line to make it more familiar to the Cisco technical community. Enlisting the support of third-party education partners such as Giga-Wave Technologies, they are able to offer additional training services opportunities to these partners while more effectively handling the education demands of their resellers. For resellers and customers needing additional technical field support, Cisco also has aligned with several third-party services organizations that offer wireless site survey design and equipment installation services.

Cisco�s main product strategy has been to migrate the products to the company�s Internet Operating System (IOS) and to add support for Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP) so that the same command line interfaces, scripts, and network management scheme already familiar to Cisco technical installers apply to the wireless products as well. This provides ease of integration and unified management, and facilitates the training of Cisco network partners.

Given the unique topologies of buildings and the potential for interference in an unlicensed spectrum band, it is extremely difficult to design and optimize an enterprise wireless network without the use of specialized test equipment. For simple installations the most basic tools are laptop software packages supplied by most manufacturers that provide basic signal strength measurements. For more complex installations equipment that thoroughly analyzes the spectrum and provides detailed information is required. The good news is that several companies such as AirMagnet, Berkeley Varitronics, Network Associates, Wildpacket, and Wireless Valley now offer such products that operate on small pocket PC platforms such as the HP Jornada and Palm, making them easy to carry around the facilities to collect data for export to PCs for evaluation and archiving. Each have various specialties and strengths, but all provide for thorough network surveys.

Derek Hardwick at Fremont, California-based IT consulting, training, and services provider Unitek Information Systems expresses overall satisfaction with the support and training offered by the WLAN vendors. He comments that the technical information provided on the partner Web sites is especially useful when configuration questions arise during projects. He strongly feels that security by far remains the largest WLAN challenge, and it�s one manufacturers need to focus the most effort on improving. Standard security mechanisms are lacking and he isn�t encouraged to see vendors incorporating proprietary solutions to compensate. His request to the manufacturers is for �open effective wireless security standards, devices that use standard IPSec security mechanisms as with wired networks, and ultimately cross-platform VPN security solutions that operate across 3G, WLAN, and wired access topologies.�

Hardwick also counsels clients on the the need for effective IT policies to manage and control the use of the network, �In these days of reduced IT budget and headcount, it is easy for an administrator to quickly distribute access points around a facility that are not properly secured or managed.� In terms of ongoing support, customers also need to understand that scheduled RF audits are necessary to capture situations where the number of users have greatly expanded beyond initial estimates and to reveal problems with unauthorized systems and access.

To attract the best channel partners and grow their markets with reference accounts, it is encumbent on the manufacturers to offer strong partner programs with effective training and support. Product design and features are migrating into products that simplify installation and ease integration, but RF design for the most part is a matter of training, survey tools, and experience. Manufacturers should consider aligning more closely with third-party test equipment companies and incorporate these tools into their training agendas. Channel partners must commit to the investments in training and tools, or be prepared to outsource certain functions to qualified service companies. Together these partnerships can accelerate the growth of the industry with enterprise wireless solutions that meet and exceed their customers� expectations.

Daniel Best is founder of PartnerLaunch Wireless, a consultancy that develops alliances and channels for the wireless industry. For more information visit the company�s Web site at www.partnerlaunch.com.

[ Return To The July 2003 Table Of Contents ]

Today @ TMC
Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas