May 16, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Time Warner Center Goes for a Unified Infrastructure

The new Time Warner Center high-rise near Manhattan's Central Park is a showplace property for residents and businesses. It was also an opportunity to design wireless communications from the ground up, rather than retrofit an existing structure by placing access points in carefully determined locations to ensure appropriate coverage without interference, all while dealing with physical challenges such as routing cables to each access point.

Rather than use the traditional access-point approach, the Time Warner Center used InnerWireless's multifrequency antennas, which are embedded throughout the building's ceilings. Instead of being a series of access points cabled together, the InnerWireless approach uses one large antenna grid, so signals radiate and are received at all points of the cable, rather than just at discrete access points. Each antenna grid connects to an access point to handle the network functions, such as access control, signal management, and handoff to the rest of the network.

Shaped like an H and embedded in the ceilings, the antenna for each floor connects to one access point for that floor, rather than having multiple antennas daisy-chained on each floor. (The antenna shape will vary based on the building's design.) For example, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel that occupies about 20% of the Time Warner Center, there are just 26 access points to manage compared to the 300 or so that would have been required with the traditional approach, says Dave Heckaman, who leads IT for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. To add capacity, "you just add more access points to the network closet" using different channels, of course Heckaman says. The concept is similar to a wired network, where the router is in a network closet and the cable carries the signal to the users' devices throughout the floor.

At the Time Warner Center, the wireless infrastructure supports several communications systems, some wireless and some wired: 802.11b wireless, cellular networks, paging networks, closed-circuit TV (for security staff), building control systems, and two-way Fire Dept. communications. By using multifrequency antennas, the InnerWireless infrastructure can support all these systems with one common antenna grid. The center has about 2.5 million square feet, with 11 nodes to cover various sections of the building. (Each section encompasses 500,000 to 750,000 square feet and connects to other nodes via intertrunk connections.)


Although the infrastructure is common to all tenants and building management, "you still layer in your intranet security as you would have in any wireless network, such as with virtual LANs," Heckaman says. Thus some services, such as voice over IP, can be made available throughout the building, while others such as local wireless LANs can be segmented off. The system as a whole is managed by a building data provider, essentially an outsourced network administrator for the building who manages tenant segments as well as the entire building network. "You could instead have different organizations providing management if you wanted," Heckaman notes, as long as they cooperate with each other.

While the InnerWireless approach is well-suited for new buildings or significantly reconstructed buildings that let the antenna grids be installed, it doesn't work as well in existing structures, since the cost of tearing apart the ceilings would be prohibitive. In existing structures, the traditional daisy-chaining of access points usually makes more sense, an InnerWireless spokesman acknowledges.

[After this story was published, the spokesman cited in the story claimed he made no such comment, and several InnerWireless PR and marketing staff disputed this last point, saying that the company's approach is less expensive because they offer support for more than just 802.11: "The cost of the full-service InnerWireless infrastructure is spread over a full range of services. In multiple access point deployments, each installation must bear the full cost. It is less expensive to deploy our Wireless Utility solution in existing buildings than to serve the same set of needs with traditional multiple deployment approaches," wrote marketing director Tom Eagle in an email. But that lower-cost claim assumes that an organization is installing multiple services as was done at the Time Warner Center. Eagle and InnerWireless's PR representatives did not respond to several requests for details on installation costs for its systems versus traditional 802.11 installation costs in existing structures. —Ed.]

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