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The race to the Tour de France start line

Monday 23 June 2014: Today sees the launch of a year-long pilot project to deliver free public Wi-Fi access within the City centre, as part of the ambitious government-funded Superconnected Cities project. The benefits to the public are obvious, but why and how did the University get involved?

Wi-Fi where it's wanted

UIS Networks Division provides the University’s data network and internet connection, including a Wi-Fi service for colleges and institutions. Over the past year, it has seen an additional 12,000 people using the Wi-Fi network, taking the total to 38,000 unique users per month, and was already planning to extend the coverage of the service to meet predicted future demand.

When Connecting Cambridgeshire, the group coordinating the city-wide project, approached Jon Holgate, Head of the Networks Division, seeking technical expertise to help get the new Wi-Fi network launched in time for the arrival of Le Tour de France in Cambridge on 7th July, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

The University was given access to install its own equipment on Council-owned street furniture and buildings, and an agreement that it could continue to use the new network in future to provide Wi-Fi access across the city centre for members of the University.

"We have been working on developments to offer improvements to the managed service UIS provides to Colleges and Institutions. We are looking to enable Departments and Colleges to provide their own branded Wi-Fi network to custom user groups, both from within and external to the University.”

Jon Holgate, Head of UIS Networks Division

"This project has given us the opportunity to fast-track our expansion of The University of Cambridge Wireless Network to where many students really want it – in public areas around town", he continued.

What was involved?

The project involved close collaboration with many key partners, including the City and County Councils, technology partners Aruba and Vanix, and civil engineers John Henry and Balfour Beatty.

For the 12-strong UIS Networks Division team, the project involved an intense period of working, spent surveying buildings, identifying suitable locations, specifying the best technical solution for each new location, sourcing and testing cutting-edge equipment, extending the GBN (Granta Backbone Network) – the fibre optic cable network jointly owned by the University, colleges and other City partners, such as Anglia Ruskin University – out to each new location, seeking planning approvals and work permits, contract negotiations with carrier networks, and close collaborative working with many external project partners.

In the short 4-month timescale, the UIS team deployed 23 new wireless access points, providing coverage for the town centre's main streets, from Parker’s Piece up towards the Round Church, taking in the market and Senate House areas and along King's Parade.

Steep learning curve

The first challenge for the UIS project team was the steep learning curve involved in designing outdoor networks. Until now, its in-house expertise lay in indoor networking, which doesn’t include requirements to plan for lightning strikes, water ingress, RF interference or the extra health and safety requirements for safe working on rooftops.

Pragmatic planning

For each new access point, there were around 16 different actions to complete, encompassing all the red tape involved in getting the requisite work permits, permission for road closures and planning approvals – not an insignificant consideration, since most of central Cambridge has listed status – before starting to consider the unique technical requirements. In order to meet the deadline, a pragmatic approach was adopted, using as many non-listed buildings and Council-owned lamp-posts and CCTV camera mounts as possible, which helped minimize the planning consent required.

Extending the GBN

The first stage of deployment required extending the GBN to reach the new access points. In many cases this was a matter of laying new cables, which required the complex timetabling of short periods of road closures to avoid disruption to public transport. Other sites required extending the cables within buildings, such as to the top of Sidney Sussex College’s famous tower.

In the four areas where there were no existing GBN cables to extend, a wireless mesh topology was deployed to create a wireless connection via a mesh portal, back to the wired central controllers in the Data Centre. This solution could prove to be a vital tool for extending the network into areas beyond the GBN in future.

Latest Wi-Fi technology

Choosing the right technology was crucial to the successful delivery of the project. Existing access point designs were ugly boxes about the size of a PC tower, for which the planning officers were reluctant to give anything more than temporary consent. With the goal of the University being to secure permanent locations for the APs, this threatened to derail the project. Fortunately, a solution soon presented itself, as Alexander Cox, who was heavily involved with the design of the new network, explains:

"I learned that Aruba were soon to release their new AP on to the market, and managed to get hold of some technical documentation that hadn't been published yet from my contacts there. I hastily redrew my plans to include these APs, and negotiated quotes from our suppliers that made them cheaper to buy than the older AP-175s. As well as being the fastest APs on the market, their discreet design allowed them to be hidden inside lamp-posts".

The team worked closely with Aruba, its existing vendor, to deploy its latest AP-275 omnidirectional access points (APs) on Parker’s Piece, which use the faster 802.11ac protocol. The network also uses some AP-175s, hidden in rooftop locations, such as the Kelsey Kerridge sports hall and Downing College.

To support the new access points and provide additional capacity especially for the event, Aruba have provided two extra wireless controllers, as well as access to early releases of their latest software.

Aruba AP-275 802.11ac wireless access point

Creative thinking required

Usually, the electronics are installed into the posts before they are erected. Working out how to retro-fit access points into working lamp-posts and CCTV camera poles without conflicting with the existing electronics required some creative thinking and Heath-Robinson style experimentation from Nick Harwood’s Network Installations team.

As well as the technical considerations, the new access points needed to be as discreet as possible, both to fit in with the surrounding environment, much of which has listed building status, and in order not to draw attention.

One happy coincidence led to the rapid deployment of an ingenious solution for Parker’s Piece. Part-way through the project, the UIS team learnt that 6 new lamp-posts were being independently installed on the common, which had been designed to resemble ‘Reality Checkpoint’, the listed lamp-post marking the centre of the park. This afforded the team an opportunity to work with the City Council to get its equipment into the posts before they were installed.

The UIS team suggested that with some adaptations to the design, the new access points could be concealed inside the decorative crowns of the new posts. The Engineering Department was approached to help design a bespoke mounting bracket, and local company, AV Engineering, to scale-up the existing design, and make the mouldings required for manufacture.

"This innovative solution entirely conceals our equipment, keeping the original design aesthetically pleasing, while avoiding any impact on the integrity of the columns", explained Simon Edwards, a Communications Specialist leading this part of the project.

Original & Big Lamp-post crownsendCap & antenna

Preparing for 'Le Grand Depart'

In order to allow as many people to connect to the network at once, without it crashing or running too slowly, a careful balance had to be struck between capacity, coverage and speed when configuring the access points. The new system is being soft-launched a fortnight before the Tour de France arrives in the city in order to start monitoring usage and performance, to see whether that balance will meet the expected patterns of demand from City centre users.

With anything up to an additional 150,000 spectators expected in Cambridge for The Grand Depart, accurately predicting demand for the service on the day of Le Tour de France is impossible.

For the UIS team, however, University users’ needs remain of paramount importance, and the network cannot be allowed to fail. To this end, the public part of the new network, which provides connectivity through BSkyB's 'The Cloud' service, is isolated from University traffic. If the system should experience any unforeseen interruptions on the day, University users should not be affected.

Stage 2

Beyond the 12-month pilot, UIS has started planning the next phase of development, in which it intends to extend coverage out towards Christ's Pieces, Jesus Green and the College boathouses, and to start to include more of the College hostels.

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Media coverage

Online

Newspaper

Front page lead article in Cambridge News on the day of the launch.

Radio

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Breakfast*, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Drivetime, Cambridge 105, Heart Radio

Television

BBC Look East

Interview transcript

*BBC Radio Cambridgeshire: Cambridge Public Wi-Fi Launched
Interview with Jon Holgate (UIS) and Noelle Godfrey (Connecting Cambridge)

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