BelAir Networks is upping the ante in the broadband wireless arena with the introduction of a new equipment platform, the Wireless Multi-service Architecture, designed to support both fixed and mobile applications and reduce the significant costs associated with deploying new networks. In a wide ranging interview with Report on Wireless, BelAir’s VP of marketing Phil Belanger talked about the impact that the company could have on the market and the wireless networks of the future.  As an introduction to the company’s products, Belanger explains that BelAir’s wireless mesh network equipment is ideally suited to address both access and backhaul problems associated with the concrete canyon urban phenomenon. "We interconnect our nodes, our units, wirelessly with point-to-point links and we do them down low (closer to street level), so we’re not blasting through buildings or over buildings, but rather going around them," he says.  A lot of talk today is centered on the impact of WiMAX on future wireless networks, says Belanger. But a lot of that discussion focuses on what he describes as the "big stick architecture" – large macrocells with a large coverage area. "That’s good for rural or even some suburban deployments, but as you get in a city centre that’s not going to be an effective way to deploy. What they’re going to need to do is turn down the power and have a smaller coverage area. When you do that, you need more units and then you have the problem of how do you interconnect them and that’s exactly what BelAir does," he explains.  While the company is primarily focused on the use of Wi-Fi in its networks, it recently elucidated its wireless product roadmap, which not only includes the introduction of fixed WiMAX, but also mobile WiMAX and an eventual evolution to supporting cellular technologies.  The following is an edited excerpt of the conversation with Belanger earlier this month.  Perry Hoffman: You feel that no single technology will dominate broadband wireless. Obviously WiMAX is going to have an important role to play in there, but is it going to be that important of role?  Phil Belanger: I think it will ultimately occur in phases. The first phase is it’s going to be used for these point-to-point links. 802.16d has already been standardized and there are initial chips available, so we are going to be using those for these backhaul point-to-point links. The big boom for WiMAX and where you see a lot of the hype on WiMAX is about the mobile version, 802.16e. It’s early days; it’s still PowerPoint slides and not real products yet. It’s a little bit over-hyped, but it’s good technology and it’s going to have a role. One of the things that occurs – and this is why it’s not a sure thing that it’s going to be built into every notebook and every mobile device – is that the other technologies are not sitting still, either. At the same time as WiMAX is being developed, Wi-Fi is going to keep progressing, 802.11n is coming and taking bandwidth speeds to over 100 Mbps.  PH: The company’s new multiservice architecture also allows for voice transmission…and voice is one of the key aspects of this, right? PB: Yes it is. We have the ability to support voice traffic on the BelAir mesh. We can separate voice traffic into a separate VLAN (virtual local area network) and give it higher priority and assure that it has better quality of service throughout the network at the access point as it is coming into the network and then all the way through the backhaul mesh to the wire. We can give it a higher priority than the other traffic to ensure that quality of service is maintained.  PH: We’ve talked a little bit about the impact of mobile technologies in this kind of multiservice architecture, this network of the future. In what kind of setting are we going to see this kind of thing happen first?  PB: There’s a lot of discussion about municipal Wi-Fi and whether or not it’s the right thing to do and is appropriate. One of the things is if you put up infrastructure like that it’s easier to justify it if it can support multiple applications or even multiple different technologies coming off of this. If you hang our box from a light pole, it would be better if it could support more than one access technology so that you don’t have to hang two or three or four of them up on every other light pole. Also, I think you’ll see this technology being used in large public venues, like sports arenas, train stations, airports and that kind of thing. Maybe our approach for this wireless mesh might be a good way to deploy some of the cellular technologies in airports in the future especially when they go to 3G. You’re starting to hear early reports now that the coverage on a 3G network isn’t as good as they were expecting and that plays right into our story because it means more cell sites, and more smaller cell sites and then therefore the need for this backhaul capability.  PH: When this comes to fruition in three to four years, how does this change the competitive dynamics in the marketplace? PB: Our technology roadmap enables us to address certain markets and as we go into different markets, we get different sets of competitors. We’re in the enterprise wireless LAN market and our big competitor is Cisco. As we go into the cellular market, then our competitors are Nortel and the guys who are normally doing cellular infrastructure. What seems to be helpful for us in some of these markets where we’re first there is we’re kind of flying under the radar screen, we’re solving a problem that is a little bit off to the side. Right now people are using our product today for interconnecting cell sites and the application isn’t very sexy from a marketing point of view – it’s literally wire replacement. So our competition there is whoever is installing T1 lines. As this becomes a bigger and bigger market, I think other players will come in like Nortel. This has been a fantastic thing for us. It allows us to get some traction and get healthy before the big guys come in. PH: I’m trying to understand how this type of architecture changes the carriers’ revenue dynamics. Once you get into a Wi-Fi situation you can do VoIP where you eliminate a lot of toll charges. PB: One of the things that we’ve seen is that carriers seem to have a very good idea of why they want to do voice over Wi-Fi, and they do want to do it. There’s been discussion about voice over Wi-Fi handsets combined with cellular handsets. That’s not being driven by college students wanting to get free long distance on a wireless phone, that’s being driven by the carriers. And so why are they doing that? Basically that kind of service can be delivered for a lower cost per minute. The reason that they’re doing it varies from carrier to carrier, but one of them is to offload capacity from their main network. In some cases, and this depends on the carrier, but some of them might have a limited set of spectrum available in a given market and the fact that they can off load some of it onto an unlicensed spectrum is a great boon to them and would allow them to continue to get more subscribers.  The other thing and probably what’s driving it even more is it allows them to maintain that connection as you transition from being mobile and walking around in the cellular network and going into the enterprise, into your office setting. If they can keep this call going on Wi-Fi, it gives them a double benefit – it’s sort of like eating your young: if they don’t do it somebody else will. So they might as well integrate it into their service and they can at least maintain that customer and work on that transition from the cellular world to the Wi-Fi world and maintain control.  PH: Where do you think we’re going to see this first: Europe, Asia or North America?  PB: I think Europe in many ways. Usually in this tech stuff, they’re a little bit behind the States, but I think that in public access Wi-Fi in many ways they are ahead of us and are deploying faster. In part it’s because the population density is more consistent. But also Wi-Fi in the train stations is something that’s really exploding and making this kind of service available on trains is the Holy Grail in Europe. We see some activity along those lines, so I could see it happening there maybe even faster than here.  PH: You mentioned three to four years earlier. Is that a realistic timeframe to really start to see some ballooning of these kinds of networks in different parts of the world? PB: I think so. In terms of the U.S., I think that makes sense for both WiMAX and 3G. I think, again, in Europe they’ve already got some pretty hefty 3G deployments so they might already be encountering some of the problems we’re anticipating in an urban environment where if you’re going to offer that high data rate data service you’ve got to partition the network into smaller and smaller cells. Now I want to temper all this enthusiasm with the regulations for operating in the unlicensed bands in Europe because they are more constrained that they are in the U.S. in terms of the power levels that you can operate on outdoor equipment. So that’s going to have a dampening effect. We’ve already done a trial that’s gone to a commercial deployment in England and the power levels were significantly lower than were allowed in North America. What the result is you have to deploy our units in a more dense fashion. In the U.S., there might be a 500 or 600 metre separation between our nodes in an urban grid type of situation. In Europe that could be 200 metres. At least in one case, we’ve proven that it still makes sense economically.  Now, by the way, in other parts of the world, in South America and Asia, it’s sort of the like wild west. They’re not so constrained regulatory-wise, you can kind of do what you want, and in those two regions it’s exploding. We can’t get into Asia fast enough at this point. We’re constrained just by resources and bodies. There’s a lot of demand over there.