VAR's Broadband WWAN Solution Helps Put Rural Texas County On The Map
By installing a wireless wide area network (WWAN) in Burleson county Texas, VAR DataScan Technologies not only connected the county, but also connected with some new customers.
Burleson County is a rural area in Central Texas located approximately 120 miles from Houston. Nearly 15,000 people live in the towns of Caldwell, Somerville, and Snook which are located within the county. A total of seven schools (elementary through high school) serve the education needs of the children of these towns. Unfortunately, due to the county's remote location, many of the high schools didn't have funds for providing advanced-level classes such as physics or calculus. Furthermore, many of the schools had limited or no Internet access, reducing the opportunity to connect to other larger schools for remote or "distance learning".
In 1998, using this educational void as a catalyst for change, community leaders created the Burleson County-Wide Integrated Network (BC-WIN). A non-profit organization with approximately 40 volunteers, the BC-WIN's vision was to provide connectivity throughout the county using a $500,000 grant from the Texas Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund.
The BC-WIN board identified the primary problem as a lack of bandwidth. The county had only 56k dial-up service and no cable access for DSL (digital subscriber line) connections. Verizon did offer T-1 connections in some areas, but this service would cost the county approximately $600 to $700 per month and only provide 1.5 Mbps (megabits per second) of bandwidth.
A Wireless Network With 30 Times The Bandwidth Of A Wired Solution
Robert Van Dresar was the independent consultant and project manager working with the BC-WIN. Van Dresar heard about Cisco's (San Jose, CA) WT-2710 point-to-point broadband wireless system and wanted to investigate the feasibility of using this for the BC-WIN project. He contacted Cisco, which in turn recommended VAR DataScan Technologies (Houston), for the install. DataScan was chosen because it had been recently named one of the top 21 Cisco VARs in the country for wireless network projects.
A team from DataScan, including Dan Tarpey, executive VP, made a presentation to the BC-WIN board for a DS-3 wireless connection. A DS-3 connection offers 44 Mbps (megabits) of bandwidth (almost 30 T-1 lines). "In this case, the wireless network is the same as a wired network," Tarpey explained. "Think of it as a fiber-link quality connection. Instead of having to incur the cost of burying or stringing fiber cable, we could do it all wirelessly while still maintaining the capacity of fiber."
DataScan recommend a TCP/IP (an open computer communications language) network instead of a CDPD (cellular digital packet data) solution. Tarpe said the reasoning for this decision was because the county would not own the CDPD network. Furthermore, the county would incur continual costs with a CDPD network such as paying for each packet of data transmitted. Neither of these factors existed with the TCP/IP solution. "CDPD is good for small bursts of data or small data transmissions such as e-mail," he said. "But, for a system requiring continuous streaming video, CDPD doesn't have the bandwidth."
The WWAN Ingredients: Towers, Antennas, Routers, Bridges
The BC-WIN board was convinced the wireless solutions was the way to go, and DataScan immediately went to work. The distance from Caldwell to Snook is 13.5 miles and from Caldwell to Somerville is 16.5 miles. First, DataScan conducted site surveys using topology mapping software that calculates elevations and indicates any possible obstructions between two points. Cisco path analysis software was also used to calculate the greatest signal possibility between these two paths. A company was contracted to construct two 80-foot antenna towers and one 100-foot tower on school district-owned land. Watkins Johnson (San Jose, CA) radio frequency radios and 4-foot Andrew (Orland Park, IL) antennas (dishes) were installed on the towers.
A Cisco uBR7246 Universal Broadband Router (a router which telecommunications carriers use) was installed at each of the three school districts. The hub site for the network was located in Caldwell. Caldwell is connected to Snook and Somerville using Cisco Aironet model 350 bridges. These bridges provide 11 Mbps (megabits per second) throughput to each city's school district, library, clinic, and public access facilities. This "local" or community traffic is then backhauled (providing data to the network backbone) via the Cisco WT-2710 Point-to-point Broadband Wireless Systems located in Snook and Somerville. Each school district was assigned its own IP (Internet protocol) address on the network.
After DataScan was chosen, the installation took nine months. The system was completed in September of 2001.
Increased Bandwidth Offers New Educational and Medical Opportunities
The high schools now receive live, interactive video feeds from teachers at Texas A&M (College Station, TX) offering higher-level classes never before offered to Burleson's students. "Another future possibility of using this technology in education involves students who are homebound or sick," Tarpey explained. "These students could patch into the network and watch the classroom from their home. They could download homework assignments and teachers could communicate with parents via a student's progress. The bandwidth of this network really opens up a lot of possibilities."
In addition to education, the healthcare sector of Burleson county is also benefiting from the WWAN. Although Caldwell has a hospital, the surrounding areas are served solely by smaller medical clinics. The new network connects all of these locations as well as provides a direct link to larger medical centers in Houston and Austin, TX.
A $540,000 Project That Leads To More Business
Part of the return on investment this $540,000 project offered was in the form of the WWAN's future impact on the area's economy. In other words, since the county owns the network, it can provision it anyway it wants. Therefore, high-tech companies can be enticed to locate their operations to Burleson due to the county's high bandwidth capabilities. Furthermore, more bandwidth can be added to the existing network by inserting another WLAN (wireless LAN) card into the router (i.e. a scalable solution). "We've tested the network with all kinds of video and data but the 'pipe' just isn't getting bogged down," Tarpey said.
One other possible future advantage of the WWAN is to link Burleson with neighboring counties to share resources (e.g. medical, education). Burleson could charge for this connection.
"We estimated the payback they would achieve by completely eliminating the existing Verizon T-1 line costs and increasing the bandwidth was about two years," Tarpey said. "Although this project was a challenge because it integrated all of the different aspects of a broadband connection, the expertise we gained from it enabled us to pick up two other customers."