As 3G Networks Buckle, Ruckus Wireless Sends Smart Wi-Fi to the Rescue

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54 megabits per second, and when you start meshing it you get a lot less than 54. With 802.11n [the latest Wi-Fi standard], it’s a whole different story. It’s got five to six times more bandwidth than 11g. And now that you have all these dual-mode phones that people carry with them, higher speed is something that people want.”

The big idea behind 3G offloading would be to place Ruckus devices in crowded public places—think malls, train stations, stadiums, and plazas. Since Wi-Fi access points can’t serve more than one user at any given moment, they rotate through all of the users trying to access them, sending them a few bursts of data at a time. One advantage of Ruckus’s devices is that they’re able remember the last known location of each user. “If we have 100 users on an access point, we have a table in memory that says, ‘For user 45, the last time we talked to him, the best antenna pattern was 378,’ and when it’s his turn again we’ll pull out that pattern,” Kish explains. Basically, the devices redirect their beams hundreds of times each second, like a laser show in a nightclub. And that’s how the Ruckus technology could serve hundreds or thousands of mobile subscribers as they pass through public places.

But none of this going to be put in place overnight. For one thing, for 3G offloading to work, phones would have to be reprogrammed to identify and authenticate themselves to local access points, and to switch over to Wi-Fi automatically when it’s available without requiring the user to enter a password. But carriers are working behind the scenes on protocols that would make all that happen, Kish says.

Ruckus Wireless product familyIn addition, carriers would actually have to deploy Wi-Fi gear in thousands of public locations. Kish says that one of the two major U.S. builders of cellular towers—it’s either American Tower or Crown Castle International, he can’t reveal which—has already installed Ruckus access points on a handful of its 20,000 towers. “We joke ’10 down, 19,990 to go,'” says Kish.

The long-term fix for 3G’s problems, of course, is 4G—and networks like Verizon’s LTE, which is faster than Wi-Fi under some conditions, are being deployed right now in dozens of U.S. cities. But Kish and Lo say they’re not worried that 4G might derail Ruckus’s new business before it even builds up steam. If the history of 3G is any guide, after all, the new LTE networks will be overloaded from the moment they’re turned on.

“Wi-Fi has moved from being a band-aid to being a strategic asset,” Kish says. “Based on the perspectives we are getting from a majority of the mobile carriers, Wi-Fi will play a role indefinitely, side by side with LTE.” For example, teams deploying LTE are turning to Ruckus for help building wireless backhaul networks to get data from the Internet backbone to LTE antennas, Kish says.

The question driving Ruckus has always been “how do you make wireless as reliable as a wire,” says Lo. “If an e-mail arrives a few seconds late, you don’t notice, but with video, every dropped packet is very apparent. I don’t want to point fingers at the carriers, but people are aware of the quality problems of the 3G networks—and the air is going to get dirtier, not cleaner. So the need for a technology like ours is going to be bigger and bigger over time.”

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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