When Northumberland County Council decided it wanted a resilient wireless solution with no single point of failure, project manager Frank Freeman felt he had a job on his hands.
‘You have to bear in mind that Northumberland is an extremely difficult area, being the second largest county in the country with around 300,000 people living there,’ he explains.
‘To provide the service that we wanted and have more mobile access for staff doing their jobs, we needed connectivity for buildings at street level and community access from the network. We also had to do this cost-effectively and deliver long-term value to the county.’
Also high on the list of priorities was reducing the county’s carbon footprint and getting it on the ‘green agenda’ to cut out the vast distances people had been travelling between places like Berwick and the main council offices in Morpeth.
‘We wanted to have a network that was flexible,’ he adds, ‘and with the big financial problems that councils are having at the moment, we wanted something that would be future-proof and deliver a ten-fold increase in bandwidth to the area for last mile within the existing five-year spend budget.’
Prior to this, Freeman says the county used 0.5MB, 2MB, 10MB meg and 100MB SDSL and ADSL connections from BT.
‘The majority were ADSL, which provided slow connectivity through BT’s normal provision, and it was obvious to us that we could reduce costs and improve performance by utilising new technologies that were available using wireless mesh for last mile delivery from the core networks,’ he explains.
However, before he could do that it was clear to Freeman that he needed to sort out the backhaul scenario for the county.
‘Initially, we had three expensive closed user groups supplied by BT, which we wanted to bring into one private network to the county council and to the stakeholders,’ he adds.
‘So, we first went about doing that by providing an outlet to the rest of the world via a dark fibre connection to Newcastle and beyond via the Easynet core, and this gave us gigabit internet connection for the county council.’
Last mile delivery
Following this, Freeman says a business case was put to the RDA One North East before £2.4m was secured to deploy a nine point-of-presence fibre full MPLS core network from as far north as Berwick and as far west as Hexham, all linking back to county hall.
Then, in 2007, Freeman decided to put the last mile out to tender on a technology neutral basis and see what was available, the idea being to link all council buildings to North-Net, the county’s next generation broadband network.
It was here Freeman came into contact with network solutions provider KBR, a company he would later decide had the best solution on the market following a trip to Europe – even though it hadn’t been introduced in this country before on such a large scale.
‘They took me to Bavaria in Germany to take a look at a public private enterprise development that was run by the private sector for the public sector,’ he says.
Here he witnessed first-hand how the company’s SkyPilot Gateways were deployed on public buildings and provided both a public sector secure network as well as a private sector network to give the communities broadband and business broadband.
‘I was so impressed that we eventually awarded the contract for last mile delivery in our nine main towns to KBR, and this has now successfully expanded to 18 towns and villages there,’ he adds.
As a result, KBR has delivered wireless connectivity to schools, libraries, council offices and other council services countywide, connecting some 250km2 using more than 200 SkyPilot mesh nodes.
It was also decided that the 5.4GHz spectrum would be used for the deployment to offer as wide a frequency band as possible to avoid interference.
Freeman says that DualBand and Carrier Class SkyPilot gateways provide backhaul for Extender base stations, while SkyExtenders are used to maintain the expandability of the mesh and maximise available bandwidth.
‘We’ve integrated the core network with Motorola point-to-point links where it’s been too expensive for excess construction charges for additional fibres,’ adds Freeman.
‘I believe fibre technology is always the best for backhaul, but where it’s too expensive then wireless provision with the Motorola equipment we’ve installed has been very good against the high cost of the fibre.’
In addition, Freeman says that Ruckus MetroFlex equipment was used to provide home worker connectivity to the DualBand WiFi.
Schools link up
But it’s the schools Freeman sees as being hubs for many local communities in Northumberland that have really impressed him in terms of deployments.
‘192 schools in 192 days gave us the full package,’ he adds. ‘We knew it worked as we had it installed in county hall and we were very confident in the equipment. We liked the countywide SSID that provided.’
Real recognition came in the form of the UK CEED National eWell-Being Awards 2010 ‘Better Ways of Working’, which marked the county out as a frontrunner in wireless mesh technology and mobile connectivity, but also in terms of cost-efficiency.
‘Despite the unique challenges that Northumberland has presented, we’ve achieved full resilience and the ten-fold increase in bandwidth we set out for,’ adds Freeman. ‘Now workers can sit in their cars and log on to the network connections with ease. It’s also helped us in terms of reducing the carbon footprint by removing any unnecessary travel and has improved working efficiency in the process.’
Freeman says that KBR is able to monitor the Northumberland mesh in real-time via a web-based partner portal.
‘This gives us the ability to check each SkyPilot node 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,’ he adds.
LTE versus WiMAX
While Freeman recognises that wireless technology appears to be changing all the time, he believes that the deployment of this core network should help provide Northumberland with stability whatever comes along.
‘We’ve even done a review of WiMAX from those Sky gateways,’ he says. ‘The coverage for me on WiMAX was OK, but the throughput connectivity compared to the SkyPilot wasn’t as good. Nowhere near in fact.
‘I believe LTE will supersede WiMAX in the future and I’m not so sure that’s the way forward for those investing in that. From our perspective, SkyPilot delivery and the mesh will provide the connectivity going forward as faster speeds come through with the technology.’