Making the connection

15 March 2017

Blackpool’s iconic tower came into its own when TNP needed a high location to install the town’s Wi-Fi equipment.


Blackpool’s iconic tower came into its own when TNP needed a high location to install the town’s Wi-Fi equipment.


Most of us now expect wireless connectivity everywhere we go. JAMES HAYES discovers how the network experts are performing miracles to make this happen.

The days of the hotspot finder – once invaluable to anyone searching for public Wi-Fi availability at an unfamiliar destination – are numbered. For anyone wanting to work or play via wireless broadband, the expectation now is that in urban (and many suburban) areas there will be plenty of free-to-use, public Wi-Fi networks that can be easily accessed.

Indications are that the Wi-Fi proliferation has not by any means peaked. Even what existed before is now being expanded as legacy Wi-Fi networks are being upgraded to cope with escalating demand. For example, just last month we reported that lampposts and street signs in the City of London will be fitted with new wireless equipment to boost the strength and coverage of public Wi-Fi across the Square Mile as part of a network upgrade later this year.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Skim through the news pages of Networking+ over the last year or so and you’ll see that Aberdeenshire, Camden, Harrow, Twickenham, Watford, are among just some of the many municipal authorities that are paving their town centre streets with Wi-Fi.

Research by iPass suggests that global hotspot numbers are set to grow to more than 340 million by 2018. That will work out to nearly one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 20 people on the planet. The company adds that the number of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK is set to rise from 5.6 million to 14 million over the same period. And Global Industry Analysis, projects that the worldwide market for outdoor Wi-Fi will reach $37.7bn (£30.2bn) by 2020, driven by an emerging era of ‘digital nomads’, ‘extreme remote working’, and schemes to monetise outdoor public Wi-Fi.

Additional reasons for infrastructure upgrades include newer iterations of the 802.11 standard. 802.11ac and 802.11ax promise better capacity and performance, and therefore enhanced quality of service and user satisfaction.

Whether device demand drives extra provisioning, or vice versa, is open to debate. What is more quantifiable is that this surge in Wi-Fi utilisation has created some significant challenges for hotspot owners and the technology providers tasked with the design and build of brand-owned Wi-Fi networks. The nature of Wi-Fi manifest in public domains is undergoing a transformative phase that millions of end-user beneficiaries are hardly aware of beyond the fact that their connection quality has improved.

Wireless technology providers are, of course, riding the wave of the current surge of installations. Such specialists acknowledge the steep learning curve that exists in terms of understanding how WLAN technology is best architected and configured for specific sites. They have gained greater experience of how Wi-Fi operation can be affected by a range of factors – especially when it boldly goes where no wireless data communications has gone before. This experience is standing them in good stead, as the current round of public Wi-Fi deployments – increasingly into outdoor environments and other challenging surroundings – are activated.

“Not so long ago, Wi-Fi was sold in terms of technical capabilities and standards – 802.11n, 802.11ac. This has now changed,” says Matt O’Donovan, CEO at managed platform provider WiFi SPARK. “It is now being specified in terms of the applications layered on Wi-Fi as communications infrastructure, the demand patterns to be placed upon it, and the operating environment – be that indoors, such as office, shop or public building, or outdoors, such as stadia or public space.”

But perhaps the most significant factor that now drives Wi-Fi build-outs is that it is being specified as a core delivery network, rather than just a ‘nice-to-have’ supplementary connection. O’Donovan says: “Customers are starting to look at the other applications they can use their Wi-Fi nets for, and set subnets to support sensors and video monitoring applications, for instance. As the Internet of Things comes forward you need to think about Wi-Fi supporting critical applications, and that calls for different thinking, both for customers as well as technology providers.”

Technological advances, such as 802.11ac and 802.11ax, will drive Wi-Fi network refreshes to an extent. But few are likely to disagree with O’Donovan when he says that the most compelling factor is our changed lifestyles and the shift to online entertainment providers making Wi-Fi a primary delivery channel for many consumers, particularly those on the move.

He also adds that Wi-Fi is now one of the top criteria in hotel ratings – and as often as not that’s because business travellers want to unwind in their rooms with, for example, Netflix, before they connect to their company VPN to finish-off their work. Major hotel owner-operator GLH would agree here. It runs 36 UK hotels with brands that include Amba, Clermont, Guoman and Thistle, and believes that quick and reliable Wi-Fi connectivity is essential for its guests. As a result, the company upgraded its wireless network across its hotels which now offer free, fast and unlimited Wi-Fi in all bedrooms, lobby areas and meeting rooms. It’s available to all guests and visitors and there’s no need to register to gain access (see Real World Networks, Jun 2014).

GLH clearly understands the business benefits Wi-Fi brings. But it’s not just hotels that stand to gain, as demand for bandwidth is fuelling Wi-Fi infrastructure refreshes in many vertical sectors.

Wi-Fi’s move from ‘controlled’ interior domains into environments that were not designed to accommodate wireless connectivity – and often present physical qualities that beset it – has driven ingenuity and initiative on the part of the installers. Three recent Wi-Fi provisioning projects exemplify some of the challenging domains the technology is moving into, and demonstrate how it is learning to pay its way as a business enabler, and even as a data analytics tool.

2017 tech meets 1868 iron

Famed for being the home of the UK’s first high-speed rail link and the main Eurostar hub, St. Pancras International has a weekly footfall of up to one million people. And with around 70 shops, cafés and bars, it also packs in more retail outlets than any other UK railway station.

The need for a major upgrade to its existing Wi-Fi infrastructure was evident as the legacy system struggled to cope with the density of usage, particularly at the peak times between 5pm and 8pm when up to 5,000 devices try to get onboard the station’s Wi-Fi network.

WIFI Metropolis has now completed a Xirrus-based network upgrade throughout St. Pancras, providing a 5GHz service across the building. But it wasn’t easy, as WIFI Metropolis’ CEO Gregory E. Smith explains: “St. Pancras station has 150-year-old structural ironworks, columns that absorb signals like a dry sponge, and massive electric train motors that enter into the heart of the station and generate interference on arrival and departure. Plus, (it has) periodic human density factors that are close to a packed 10,000-person elevator – except that they all moving with Wi-Fi-connected devices.”

And if all that wasn’t challenging enough, St. Pancras is also a Grade One listed building with restrictive placement rules. Smith says that limited the optimal positioning of access points.

As a result of all this, WIFI Metropolis re-thought all conventional site survey/network design approaches. Working with Xirrus, it constructed a high-density infrastructure customised to the environment, managing and refining everything from AP placement, configurations and maximum backhaul to each access point to prevent the periodic area saturation from degrading user performance.

Smith says that he would have considered low-cost millimetre band radio instead of fibre for backhaul in very long run, or for hard-to-reach locations, but this option was not available during the installation.

Nonetheless, the new network can now support 8,000 concurrent connections as opposed to the previous system’s 200. Smith says that it’s even more impressive when you consider that the majority of people in the station are using Wi-Fi while on the move.

One unexpected outcome of the deployment is that it has now become key to measuring the flow of people across the station which has an impact on attracting new retail tenants. This is because the data gathered when users connect to the network is more accurate than traditional people-counting surveys which only cover a small period.

“Public venues such as St. Pancras International are operated under agreements with public authorities that evaluate their performance in accordance with a range of metrics,” says Smith. “One of those metrics for train stations is the quality of Wi-Fi provided; ratings on these metrics impact franchise renewals. Wi-Fi is one subject that generates high levels of comment, and hence has an impact.”

WIFI Metropolis has access to data from venues similar to St. Pancras and has discovered that the single-most important factor in use pattern is the amount of seating or comfortable standing area available, versus the total flow of users. “The average user in St. Pancras International is connected for 20 minutes and consumes 63MB of data,” says Smith. “However, the range of use is highly variable. At rush-hour, the user count may be 10x the average, but this means connect time falls sharply because there are not 10x the number of seats or comfortable locations to stand.”

To serve short-duration customers, he says the quality must be higher so that 10 minutes can be as useful as 20 minutes or more, otherwise the commercialisation and user satisfaction will degrade at the time when the most valuable customer traffic is ‘touching’ and attempting to access the network.

Smith adds that Wi-Fi must also be benchmarked against actual count data to make the adjustments for people not carrying devices with Wi-Fi turned on, and for multiple devices for a single individual.

Blackpool’s Wi-Fi blend

Renowned holiday resort Blackpool is also popular for conferences, and the 
Wi-Fi expectations of both vacationers and delegates these days is high.

“Public Wi-Fi provision is important for visitors – we have around 13 million each year,” says Tony Doyle, head of IT at Blackpool Council. “Blackpool seeks to significantly improve its conference offering as delegates demand good Wi-Fi.”

As part of a £3.2m, five-year managed services contract, The Networking People (TNP) designed and built a council-owned WAN that supports Wi-Fi provisioning across the town. Rather than leasing core connections through a telco, the council opted for a solution that it now owns outright. TNP says this ‘asset-ownership model’ reduced the local authority’s procurement costs by negating the need to purchase additional infrastructure as required, or becoming locked-in to a provider.

A range of technologies were put in place enabling Blackpool to make savings while connecting around 100 schools, libraries, business incubator sites, and other public buildings. These technologies include carrier-class microwave radio systems (point-to-point, 60GHz and 80GHz, and licensed bands) and fibre optic cable build-outs, with multiple Wi-Fi hotspots to enable public access.

The council was also fortunate in having Blackpool Tower – all the Wi-Fi equipment to cover the town was located at the top, 150 metres above street level. TNP’s Cloud Connect portal enables the council to now offer its own branded guest Wi-Fi solutions across the town.

Doyle says Blackpool is now developing wireless technology to fulfil its ‘Smarter Promenade’ vision to create a more interactive environment for visitors. It is also working with the local tram operators to look at offering free Wi-Fi, not only on board but also at stops to provide better information and connectivity for users.

“Working with TNP has enabled us to drive down costs, and deliver a better service,” says Doyle. “That is especially true in terms of management of the council’s assets and estates, connecting new buildings or areas, and being able to respond to commercial opportunities, like the provision of a dedicated link service for high-profile events like BBC TV’s Strictly Come Dancing show (at the Tower Ballroom).”

He adds that the success of the project has made him “braver” about what can be achieved using wireless, and he is more prepared to try other ground-breaking technologies. “These may include developments such as LoRaWAN. We are very interested in the impact it could have on the town in terms of issues like social care, and monitoring health or environmental status of vulnerable people. For example, tracking the temperature in someone’s home to avoid hypothermia, or tracking dementia patients to ensure they do not wander or are at risk of harm.”

The wireless connection that switches tracks

The provision of Wi-Fi to passengers on public transport has received mixed reviews since it was introduced a decade ago – but that was when pioneering operators like GNER and Virgin Trains charged for it.

Many train operating companies now realise that gratis in-carriage connections will soon become a standard passenger expectation, and that the connection has to be reliable and high-quality. As one of the first train operators to introduce free train Wi-Fi back in 2011, Chiltern Railways (owned by Arriva Trains) was keen to offer a tailored wireless service for passengers and ended up taking the concept to a higher level.

The development team at Exeter-based WiFi SPARK worked with the operator along with passenger transport Wi-Fi specialist Icomera to develop a patented solution to provision continuous connectivity.

Passengers have to sign on once to gain access; the system then automatically switches the connection link from station to train, or train to station, without them needing to re-authenticate as their connection switches between networks. As the train approaches a station, the on-board connectivity is temporarily offloaded onto the station’s Wi-Fi, so that the best available connection is used.

“Our continuously connected Wi-Fi had to work first time,” says Hans Stiles, head of IT at Chiltern Railways. “There was no margin for error, as this would impact customer experience.”

WiFi SPARK completed an overhaul of Chiltern Railways’ Wi-Fi provision at 28 stations and three depots, based on solutions from Ruckus. Separate networks were provided for the public and for the company’s corporate and guest access.

Stiles says: “I commute between Marylebone Station and Birmingham Moor Street Station several times a week, and have access to high-quality Wi-Fi from the point I walk into a Chiltern Railways station and throughout my journey. My own experience is that I am more productive.”

Chiltern Railways has also improved customer data. It is now reviewing this with WiFi SPARK to assess opportunities to get deeper social demographic customer insights. “Enhanced Wi-Fi services are the foundation upon which we will deliver connected journeys for our customers, as well as digitalising our assets,” says Stiles.