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Exhibition centre finds cure for Wi-Fi congestion

Wi-Fi is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the short-range wireless technology takes a load off fixed networks and is relatively easy to install.

The curse is that it is relatively easy to install.

As a result, a number of organizations have casually added access points suited for homes to their networks without thinking through the long-term implications.

Then one day management realizes this haphazard network can't cope.

That's what happened at the International Centre, a 1 million square foot exhibition space across the street from Toronto's international airport and site of over 400 consumer product and trade shows a year which attract up to 10,000 attendees.

"We would only be able to get five to 10 users [online] at a time" in the exhibition space says Anthony Seebaran, the centre's manager of information systems. In the conference centre things were only slightly better.

It didn't help that the centre's walls were thick concrete to keep out the noise from the nearby airport.

The solution was installing a commercial grade wireless local area network (WLAN). The lesson isn't new: Network managers need to carefully watch what's being added to their networks and whether devices will meet expected needs.

At the International Centre, Wi-Fi access was added as an adjunct to the site's main business. That's why a handful of access points designed for homes and small businesses from D-Link Corp. and the Linksys division of Cisco Systems Inc. were installed in the exhibition and conference spaces. To keep control, users are charged CDN$6.95 for daily access.

But as the number of Wi-Fi enabled devices expanded to smart phones and netbooks, so too did the demand for access by show attendees. Then the bits hit the fan. "It was pretty hectic," says Seebaran. "We could only handle a certain number of people in certain areas."

Not only couldn't the WLAN handle the load, the access points interfered with each other and competed for channels and bandwidth.

Seebaran realized how serious the problem was when he joined the centre exactly a year ago. In looking for a proper supplier, he figured any equipment maker that could meet the needs of a university would satisfy the needs of the centre.

For him that narrowed down the list to Aruba Networks Inc., Rukus Wireless Inc. and Xirrus Inc. In November each was invited to demonstrate its technology. Aruba and Rukus were eliminated, Seebaran said, because their solution would have needed extra network wiring. Xirrus' arrays, each with up to 16 directional access points, needed the least amount of infrastructure change.

In fact, Seebaran said, for the test only two arrays were needed to blanket one of the centre's biggest halls.

"The thickness of the walls threw us off a bit," admitted John Merrill, Xirrus' director of corporate marketing and communications. But he said the company's distributed architecture, which is similar to a cellular network, makes the difference. The multiple radios in each access point also means fewer APs are needed to cover a given space, a money-saver.

Canada had been an "off and on" market for the equipment maker until about a year ago when a Canadian was hired as the company's global vice-president of sales. It now has three dedicated sales reps here.

Xirrus' initial solution, installed in February, called for 18 wall-mounted access points covering most of the buildings, later expanded to other areas to 21 APs -- two more wall-mounted units, plus a tripod-mounted access point that could be brought in anywhere in the building or its surrounding parking lot.

The purchase eventually came to about CDN$150,000, money that wasn't in the centre's capital budget for this year. Seebaran and the CEO persuaded the board "it was something we needed desperately."

"We're very pleased" with the improved WLAN capacity, said Seebaran. During a recent show some 460 Wi-Fi devices connected to the network in a small hall without any trouble.

His only disappointment is that he couldn't afford to broaden the WLAN to cover less used parts of the centre when the new network was installed.

But at least there's a solid base. That wasn't true seven months ago.


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