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When BP in Cairo decided it needed reliable high-speed connections between its various offices, it chose a wireless technology that may be unfamiliar to some readers. However, use of free space optics (FSO) is growing, as Vaughan O’Grady finds out in the first of two articles on how technology is meeting the communications needs of modern businesses.
From the wellhead
to the rooftop “W
E REALISED PEOPLE would be reliant on these things — that downtime would be abhorrent. So we had to do three things. One was to design a product that was the most reliable possible and wouldn’t fail. Second to only sell it in environments to which it was suited. And lastly to make sure it’s backed by resellers who can provide any service the customer needs.” We are talking here about communications. Or, more accurately, Stephen Patrick is the CEO of Wireless Excellence Ltd, a leading designer and manufacturer of professional wireless products for a wide variety of applications. That includes Wi-Fi, WiMAX, microwave, millimetre wave and more. ‘More’, in this case, includes free space optics (FSO), which uses infra-red laser technology to transmit data. The focus on FSO in this article is because BP in Egypt has chosen what may, to many readers, be an unfamiliar wireless technology to send data to and from its various Cairo offices.
All our wireless links are up on rooftop level, and mounted in locations where there is clear line of sight between locations.
Why BP chose the technology As for why it chose the technology, the background is as follows. BP has had a presence in Cairo for a long time. It was consolidating facilities into different offices or buildings around the city. It therefore required high-speed links between those sites, a not unusual need where multiple buildings in the same city are involved. Patrick takes up the story: “BP realised that relying on the local telecom provider was going to be not only very expensive, but would not enable them to reach their desired availability and reliability targets for the network. Conversely, ‘owning the infrastructure’ with a wireless solution means that all the equipment is owned and under control of the customer — who can therefore take whatever actions are required to ensure consistent and high uptimes. A local partner responded to an enquiry made by BP locally in Egypt, and suggested our solution as the ‘best fit’ for the customer needs.”
A simple idea Wireless Excellence offers a number of different wireless systems but in this case Patrick was referring to FSO. In principle, the idea is simple: you have a box that generates a laser beam — a very low power light beam — which is modulated. It carries data in the form of ones and zeros from one point to another point. There they are converted back to data. In practice, however, making this technology reliable has, Patrick said, cost the telecommunications industry as a whole many
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Customers especially like the fact that point-to-point wireless communication using laser is, in most countries, licence-free. millions of dollars and a lot of work. Even when it was commercialised back in the late 1990s companies like Wireless Excellence had to overcome a lack of awareness of FSO (compared to, say, microwave or fibre) with demonstrations and trials.
FSO has many advantages But it has been worth it, and not just for Wireless Excellence. Customers especially like the fact that point-to-point wireless communication using laser is, in most countries, licence-free. In addition, radio spectrum is a limited resource; the microwave spectrum tends to be congested in major cities with hundreds, or even thousands of links all competing for the same frequencies. Infra red, however, is uncongested. FSO’s other advantages include quick set-up, very high speed (1 Gbps) and low annual fees to Egypt’s NTRA (National Telecom Regulatory
Authority) compared with other wireless technologies. In fact, Patrick explained, “With our reseller we have worked with the NTRA to ensure that all the products and installations meet their needs. The fact that these products use optical (infra-red) rather than RF spectrum means that they are very supportive; these products don't add to the severe and increasing congestion of RF bands, so there is a motivation for all parties to choose optical links where appropriate.”
Its limitations FSO does have its limitations. Transmission is only up to 2km as a rule (though much longer links have been achieved: up to 4km or more) and it requires line of sight transmission. That means, in cities most of all, the transmission and reception equipment is usually rooftop-based. Careful planning is therefore required to ensure that the desired links can be implemented. Also in some cities and regions of outstanding heritage the user may also be at the mercy of planning regulations. However, most business users, including BP, are fortunate in occupying fairly tall buildings where line of sight is easy to attain, and the units are usually not visible from street level. If a company using FSO doesn't own a building it can usually negotiate with building owners for rooftop access. Sometimes more height is needed to ensure