Internet Solutions mulls metro Wi-Fi plan


Dimension Data division Internet Solutions (IS) is at an advanced stage of planning for a project that could see it investing heavily in building metropolitan Wi-Fi networks to serve business campuses and city streets in dense urban areas.

Craig Stewart, product manager for Wi-Fi at IS, says the project, which would dramatically extend the company’s involvement in the telecommunications infrastructure access business, is being scrutinised for its commercial viability. Stewart expects IS will launch a pilot network soon using specialised outdoor Wi-Fi equipment.

“We have looked at it and we think it makes sense,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to commit to any dates but we are at advanced stage and have assessed the vendors we are going to use.”

He says he expects IS will go ahead with the project. He points to the example of the US, where operators AT&T and Verizon have built extensive Wi-Fi networks to complement their third-generation mobile data networks.

“We believe Wi-Fi is a strategic technology that can address some of the issues we have in SA from a broadband access point of view, taking broadband to the wider population.”

Stewart admits, however, that the network will specifically target dense urban areas, at least at first. Other technologies will have to be applied to achieve coverage in more outlying areas, he says.

The network will use the fast 802.11n Wi-Fi standard and will be designed to be complementary to voice and data infrastructure provided by the mobile operators.

The idea is to leverage the fibre-optic infrastructure being built by FibreCo, in which IS has a 33,3% stake. FibreCo’s other partners are Cell C and Convergence Partners.

“Without fibre for backhaul, it’s not going to work,” he says. “You need to provide a phenomenal experience and fibre is the best way of doing that.”

Stewart explains that the project will involve building high sites to provide connectivity into fibre and constructing access points in the dense urban areas like Sandton’s CBD by installing all-weather Wi-Fi devices in street lights and similar structures.

The access points would connect wirelessly to the high sites and would interconnect with each other by means of a “mesh network” to provide redundancy to the high sites.

The plan is to run multiprotocol label switching, or MPLS, technology over the Wi-Fi network to provide improved quality of service, especially for voice calls.

If IS management gives the go-ahead, the network will probably use a combination of unlicensed bands around 2,4GHz and above 5GHz. This would obviate the time-consuming and potentially expensive need for IS to secure a spectrum licence from the Independent Communications Authority of SA to build the network.

The Wi-Fi plans are separate to IS’s intention to bid for spectrum in the 2,6GHz band, where it has expressed an interest in building a national mobile broadband network using technology called long-term evolution, or LTE.

IS is already a big player in Wi-Fi through its AlwaysOn subsidiary, in which it has a 51% stake. AlwaysOn provides hotspots in hotels, airports, restaurants and other high-trafficked areas. It has about 900 coverage areas nationwide, consisting of more than 12 000 individual access points.