Full Stream Wireless managed to get the contract to implement The District\'s Wi-Fi, for a trial period until November (if it goes well, the network will expand to cover a much wider area). I was given the technical lead on this project, so I decided to talk about how we did it." />

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The District Wi-Fi Project

Full Stream Wireless managed to get the contract to implement The District's Wi-Fi, for a trial period until November (if it goes well, the network will expand to cover a much wider area). I was given the technical lead on this project, so I decided to talk about how we did it.

Full Stream Wireless managed to get the contract to implement The District's Wi-Fi, for a trial period until November (if it goes well, the network will expand to cover a much wider area). I was given the technical lead on this project, so I decided to talk about how we did it.

Planning Phase

The District constitutes an area covering much of downtown Columbia, MO. We started by mapping the target area:

The area highlighted in cyan constitutes the target area. This covers an area approximately nine city-blocks wide, and six city-blocks tall. The District's objective is to provide good coverage throughout this area, at minimal cost.

We then started planning approximate Access Point placement, settling on two proposals - a high-density coverage option, and a low-density option:

The high-density option uses around fifteen access points, while low-density uses only seven. The pictured coverage estimates are a little optimistic, since they do not take into account foliage or buildings. However, they served as a base-line. Coverage ranges were estimated based upon our experience with the Roots'n'Blues'n'BBQ festival: under light-to-moderate load, our UniFi equipment can cover a 400' radius. This shrinks significantly when serving hundreds of concurrent users. Therefore, the low-density option is good for normal conditions, but the high-density map is required for festival coverage.

We initially designed the network on the assumption that we would use outdoor WiMAX modems as back-haul for the Access Points.

At this point, we submitted our proposal to The District - and a few months later, received the contract and go-ahead to start build-out. The District selected the low-density option for cost purposes.

Early Implementation

We then began the process of contacting building-owners regarding mounting space for Access Points. Eventually, seven locations agreed that provided close to our desired coverage pattern.

A discussion about back-haul costs (connection from Access Point to the Internet) and stock-levels convinced us that we would be better served with a non-WiMAX solution for feeding the access points. This dove-tailed nicely into another project we were working on, providing us with a proving ground for the technology we intend to provide to business customers. A single Ubiquiti Rocket M5 and sector antenna was installed on Paquin, pointed towards the Downtown area. Each site has a non-penetrating roof-mount, with a single riser pole. On that pole, a Ubiquiti NanoStation Loco M5 connects back to Paquin, and a UniFi Outdoor AP provides Wi-Fi coverage. A VLAN setup places all of The District's users in a single VLAN, while management functions are isolated and unavailable to end-users. We evaluated using UniFi's guest portal functionality, but opted instead to use pfSense's captive portal functionality. It is configured to give everyone an hour of un-fettered Internet access, before providing a splash-screen. This provides quick and dirty coverage for phone users travelling through the area, while prompting heavy fixed users periodically - a deterrent to using it to replace their home broadband connection. Individual connections are throttled to 4 mbit/s.

We setup a test system in the office, connected back to Paquin. The NanoStation Loco far exceeded our expectations, providing 45 mbit/s download and 20 mbit/s upload - from inside the office, peeking through a window! Experiments with a roof-top mounted unit provided even better performance.

The UniFi setup is running the latest UniFi 3.1 software stack, and also performed very well - but we had little doubt that it would, having used the units extensively for previous projects including Roots'n'Blues, and True/False.

Implementation

Once the system was thoroughly tested (and a number of configuration issues ironed out), we proceeded to start mounting the units. Thanks to the following organizations for letting us use their roof-tops:

  • Boone County National Bank
  • Commerce Bank
  • Missouri Theater
  • Flat Branch Park (Parks & Rec.)
  • Van Matre & Harrison, PLC
  • The Howard Building (City of Columbia)
  • The Boone County building (Boone County)

The first installation went live in March, with the rest following shortly thereafter. With the exception of the County Building, we easily met our May 1st deadline; roofing work on the County Building meant that it went up a week later than originally planned.

Production

All seven units are now live, and uptake has been very good. Drive-testing has confirmed that the following map is approximately correct:

We have seen over one thousand users in the last seven days, which equates to over 3,000 connections (the software appears to stop counting at 3,000). Feedback has been positive, with several people telling us that they love using the service. We will continue to maintain the system, and hopefully it will turn into a full-scale District-wide implementation in November.

Business Internet

The other nice side-effect of this project is that we have thoroughly road-tested our Rocket M5 Sector + NanoStation system. It works fantastically well, and we are well on the way to using it to provide dedicated bandwidth to business customers.

We have mounted a NanoStation M5 on our office roof, and with very little aiming it is providing 60 mbit/s download and 35 mbit/s upload. Tweaking the aim improves this further, but it is more than good enough for what we need!

We are now in the process of migrating several servers from Thoth's data-center onto hardware at Full Stream Wireless. The link has been running at full speed for over a week while rsync does its magic - synchronizing literally hundreds of gigabytes of data between the two systems.

Initial testing of hosted systems using this link has also been very good: customers report impressive latency and speed.

Conclusion

This has been a really fun project, and one I hope will expand into a permanent fixture for the City. Visitors to the downtown area certainly seem to appreciate the service, and it helps put Columbia on the map as a modern city. I've really enjoyed both the public-service aspect of the project, and the technical side - and I've been really impressed with Ubiquiti's equipment, and the quality of their support and community forums, throughout.

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