Thursday, April 20, 2017

First look: Ubiquiti UniFi Access Point T-Rail Mount for Wi-Fi Stand & Drop Ceilings!

Working in the wireless industry, producing products for the industry, and having friends in the industry has its cool times. Like when product manufacturers reach out to you and ask if you can check out a new product. Whether it's a new AP or a simple mount, it's always awesome to open a box few have had access to. I recently got this opportunity with Ubiquiti Networks when they reached out to me to check out their new T-Rail mount and see if it would work with Wi-Fi Stand.



First off, thanks guys! 

Thanks for taking the time to check with industry before rolling out a product to make sure it can be as accessible to everyone as possible. From the first Power Station I received a number of years ago to this, Ubiquiti has always had a great group of people internally that promote making products people will use.



The AP we'll be using is the Ubiquiti UniFi AC HD. This is a dual-band 802.11ac Wave 2 AP capable of 1733Mbps to the client.


It's larger that the Lite, LR and Pro models, so if it works on the Wi-Fi Stand, those products should too! I didn't have one of these devices so Ubiquiti provided one of these as well, which was totally cool of them.

The mount did not ship with the AP and I'm not sure if the plans are to ship it together or as a separate item. Either way, a few days later a box showed up with the mount kit in it.



It was pretty straight forward and simple. The type of installation you will be using has letters that correspond to the holes to use for the mount type. There were no instructions, but usually pre-release stuff like this is pretty basic. Not a big deal, and definitely not too hard to figure out.


We are using the "B - T-Bar Mount <ceiling>" option on this for drop ceilings and Wi-Fi Stand.


As always, the Ubiquiti packaging is on point. Kudos to always making each piece of equipment look like you paid way more for it than you did. Its one of the great psychological things that Ubiquiti continues to lead with.


The bracket that ships with the AP is made of plastic and ships with the AP. This is the one that requires you to makes some holes in the drop ceiling panel. I've always thought it was a clean design, but a little destructive. Glad to see this new mount but I will say I hope to see it in plastic soon. The metal on the mount is a little sharp and doesn't have the same "click" to it that the existing one does. Not a show stopper at all, just an opinion.


The mounting hardware the new kit shipped with has 4 screws and anchors, the T-Rail adapters, screws to hold them on, and some tools for the kit.


The T-Rail mounts have tiny, threaded, 6-sided screws on them to secure the adapter to the T-Rail as well as rubber stoppers to provide a non-slip fit. Both are cool little additions that probably don't add much cost but add a comfort level to mounting; your AP isn't going anywhere.

Installation

Installation is pretty straight-forward.


Mount the first T-Rail adapter onto the T-Rail and rotate it clockwise until they stop, sliding the rail in between the empty space on the adapters. The rubber stoppers should hold and secure the adapter.


Next, tighten the screws using the provided wrench to secure the adapter. Repeat this for the next one and place the second adapter on the rail a few inches away so that the screw holes for "B" line up.


Use the provided screws to secure the mount kit to the T-Rail adapters.


Align the wire entry area of the bracket to the AP and twist the AP onto the bracket plate. This is the part where there isn't a "click" like the plastic version to let you know it's secured.


That's it! You're mounted to a T-Rail with a Ubiquiti AP now!


Does it work with Wi-Fi Stand?

It sure does! Follow the same instructions as you would to a T-Rail on a ceiling.



Mount the T-Rail adapters.


Secure the mounting bracket plate.


Mount the AP to the bracket plate!

Now, using the Wi-Fi Stand, set up your temporary access!



Thanks to Ubiquiti for providing the early release of their new T-Rail mount for the UniFi AC HD Access Point, and event letting me "hang on" to the AP!

Shameless plug for Wi-Fi Stand Bracket and the new Wi-Fi Stand Rail!


We use the same component on both, so if it works on the bracket it works on the stand!
Please visit www.wifistand.com to purchase either or both!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

My Problem With Ubiquti isn't their gear..


A few weeks ago @Wirednot lobbed a question to the internet with the familiar #WIFIQ tag:



It started off a pretty good conversation, that ended up with me receiving a box of gear from Ubiquiti to see what my impressions of their full suite of products would be.

I'm looking forward to getting this going so that I can get a great feeling of what the products can do, how they can do it, and when properly installed, what the benefit to the customer can be.

When Properly Installed...

So the @UBNT twitter account retweeted the above tweet and my timeline blew up. The 80k users following it started throwing hearts at my tweet, which is always fun. I jumped on the UBNT timeline to see what else they had retweeted lately and I about shit myself.


After seeing those tweets, I couldn't scroll any longer and I had to fire up Blogger to post this...

In case you don't understand the rage here:

Example 1: WHY WOULD YOU LAY AN AP ON A METAL COUNTER WITH AN ALUMINUM WALL BEHIND IT?

Example 2: WHY WOULD YOU PLACE AN OMNIDIRECTIONAL ANTENNA IN A CORNER?? MULTIPLE TIMES???

If you don't know anything about wireless, think about this:
It's like a light bulb. If you're trying to get light to everyone in the room, where would you mount the light? IN THE CORNER OF COURSE.

<deep breath>

Here's My Problem With Ubiquiti

Whether or not the radios work, the software works, or they are capable products, they incidentally made everyone think that they could handle wireless installations. Honestly, Ubiquiti didn't even do this on purpose. Their low-cost in the market destroyed the barrier of entry for everyone, and the flood gates were opened. Suddenly everyone thinks they know "how to Wi-Fi". The only problem is THEY DON'T. This gives wireless professionals a pretty bad name.

When you're trying to use the Wi-Fi in the restaurant where the AP is mounted in THE CORNER and it doesn't work, you blame the W-Fi. You don't blame the AP vendor or the person who put it IN the corner, you blame the Wi-Fi!!

Now, when you have to sell wireless access to a business owner, what do they naturally say "yeah, Wi-Fi sucks". Thanks to the corner guy, that business owner is now jaded. It's an uphill battle because some knucklehead thought they'd make a dime by installing Wi-Fi.

Help Make the LightBulbs Go Off, Please.

Now multiply that times Ubiquiti's market share in the industry.
And when the @UBNT twitter handle tweets that garbage out to 80K followers, everyone thinks it's OK to do that! C'mon now. With great products come great responsibility.



My advice, hey @UBNT, please encourage people to learn about wireless before they continue to do ridiculous stuff like this.

At the very least, throw a graphic in your actually really, really, awesome packaging, that explains that Wi-Fi is like a light bulb: if you want good coverage, mount it it where you would a lightbulb trying to serve the room.

KTHX. Rant over.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Software Defined Networking and Its Effects on the Wireless Industry

As Seen by A Wireless Guy at a Networking Field Day Event

Since the first time I saw a Tech Field Day event, I've always tried to keep up with everything that the folks at Gestalt IT do for the industryUsually, the events feature a group of people who are pretty good at what they do getting asked to attend a field day in their specific industryThis exclusive group of analysts and influencers get chauffeured around from tech company to tech company for a weekThey get seats in deep-dive presentations while the vendors get to show off their latest and greatest gearAudiences with product managers, C-level executives, and embargoed briefings round out the list of events of their time togetherThrow in some great customer success stories and it's the kind of event that creates a pretty sizeable impact.

That's only half the story though, because there's something amazing that each one of these companies gets out of this as wellAside from the number of tweets, retweets, mentions and blog posts that follow afterwards, instant feedback is kingThe ability to have this cross-section of deeply involved industry individuals in one room, at one time, enables an opportunity for relevant, balanced, and constructive feedback for the host companiesI am a huge fan of this realistic human-based marketing cycle, but now so even more, after this invitation to my first Network field day. This time proved to be a little bit different.

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

Let me explain. People who know me, follow me, and read my blog, know that I am in the wireless space. It's the corner of the tech and networking sandbox that I love to play in. This doesn't mean I don't know anything about other technology, however my primary focus is definitely on wireless


A post shared by Wireless Nerd (@wirelessnerd) on


This time it was a little more exciting for me, having been invited to come over to another side of the industry: the Networking sideMy invitation to sit in the Networking Field Day group, which actively focuses on routers, switches, virtualization, and other things in the data center was well received. Surrounded by Wireless CCIEs and the like versus the Wireless folks I am used to was sure to be a little daunting. While wireless and data networks are practically one in the same when it comes to purpose, the equipment and engineering for both are drastically different

In a growingly segmented IT industry, wireless engineers have to understand the RF and specifics of the equipment, with a firm understanding of networkingRealizing how the equipment they are plugging into affects the wireless system is essential
The Networking folks have to understand the deepest elements of data transport. Through routing and switching, whether it be physical, logical, or virtual, they have to understand how everything that is feeding into their network requires specific types of data, and how that data can affect the entire network. This can be a bit difficult. 
The two worlds share the common bond of connecting data, but there are more things drastically different than that are the same.

So, to say that I felt like an interloper is a bit of an understatement. Not only did I feel like there were a few things I wouldn't be able to keep up with, but I also felt like the people who were in the room with me, dedicated network geeks that are all brilliant each in their own ways, were going to have conversations that ran circles around my network abilities .. and I consider myself pretty good!

As challenging as I thought it would be, to avoid it would have meant to live in my little happy wireless bubble and continue to be reactionary to the changing tide of networking. So I grabbed on to the mane, spurred the bronco in the thigh and headed to Silicon Valley to see how dumb I really was.

It was a pretty eye-opening experience.

As someone who has a background in data networking and switching, there were a lot of basics that I figured wouldn't get past me; pretty much what ended up being only slide 1 of every deck. The rest was going to be awesomely uncharted territory. I knew I was in for a treat when I looked at the list of companies that we were going to be visiting, obviously with VMware being one of the standout companies when it comes to thisOnce we got into the presentations though, I quickly realized that I am not as up-to-date as I could be on SDN and network virtualization.

What I will tell you, from the perspective of someone who has some dated experience in the industry, is that we are going to an amazing place when it comes to networkingThe product demonstrations, vendor information, customers standing in front of us discussing what they were doing, and detailed walk-throughs on how to make it all happen, showed how everything coming down the line is pretty exciting stuff
Obviously for me, poking my head in from a different industry, it's bright and shiny and new. But if there's one thing I learned about open networking, software defined networking, and network virtualization, it's that there are no set veterans or even clear leaders yetThis is still very much a new frontier where people are trying, trying and failing, and trying and succeeding. This made it that much more interesting for me honestly

A day at the Open Networking Summit

This point couldn't of been more clear than when we were at the opening networking summit. My takeaway observation was that everyone seemed to be bickering over the right way and the wrong way to do things with no one out in front as a transformative leader.




You have these amazing presenters on stage, like Sandra Rivera from Intel, Jan from Ericcson, Margaret Chiosi from Huawei and Srinivasa Kalapala from Verizon all talking very inspirationally about how to trudge forward using the history of the past as an example to the great things that are ahead

Once it was opened up to questions though, it was commentary from people who weren't asking questions, but standing on one side of the room telling the presenters why they thought the other side of the room was doing it wrongObviously that was volleyed by the other side of the room now taking the mic and getting up to tell the presenter why the other side of the room was wrong
I found it a little comical to be honest, but I also saw that you had a handful of passionate groups all trying to figure out the best way through thisThe absence of a clear leader made me imagine a scenario where instead of a clear leader pushing through the jungle chopping through vines with a machete, you had a bunch of groups with knives trying to out run each otherTo the point of the Vice President of Technology and Supplier Strategy at Verizon, he flat out said that they would love to support it but the industry had "no clear direction", a point absolutely proven by the audience.



Zooming back out to the larger view of Software Defined and Virtualization..

One of the first sessions we sat in was with IP Infusion. IP Infusion produces Network Operating Systems. I pretty much had very little idea what that meant at this point, so let's fast forward a bit.

One of the standout conversations at the show was at a networking dinner where Networking Field Day delegates, current and previous vendors, as well as surprise guests and Mobility Field Day Delegates Blake, Jenn, and Jake showed up (with Robb in tow!) 

We mingled with the groups from IP Infusion, TeloIP, and more, but it wasn't until I parked in a corner with Ed from Barefoot Networks that things really started to click. We had a very open, fun, candid, and no holds barred conversation with the VP of one of the stand outs in SDN. Fresh off the great deal with AT&T, I got to pick his brain about how all this stuff works together and what directions it will be taking. Being a n00b has it's benefits sometimes and this time the benefit was getting industry folks to help me understand in language an angry 14 year-old could appreciate

I asked very basic questions, laden with expletives and terribly basic examples of things, but in the end, I got knowledge. After filtering through, here's the gist. May I present to you:

What the Hell is in an SDN: A technology ecosystem breakdown, direct from the bar


Basically, you have 3 groups of companies in the SDN ecosystem: 

1. Those that make "bare-metal" equipment 

2. Those that make the silicon that run that bare-metal gear. 

3. Those that make software that interfaces with the silicon to move your data. 

So what the hell is bare-metal? 
It's a chassis with ports on it. It relies on the silicon manufactures to make things happen. Think of bare-metal as a build-your-own-pc, without a processor. 

The silicon guys make the processors. Think "intel inside" or AMD. You pick the chip that makes the thing tick. Except, these chips vary and enable different functionality when used with the right software, so choose wiselyand based on what you want to do with it.

The software vendors are the people that make the software that does stuff with the processor and makes data and whatnot flow in and out of the ports. This is where the ONS stuff comes in. Think about closed source stuff as Microsoft and the Windows OS and the open stuff like Linux, for your switchCoincidently it is actually Linux for your switch. Haha :)

Rewind..

Back to IP Infusion here: they produce software that can tell the silicon on the bare-metal switch what to do. Now it all made sense to me. What was crazy to learn was that IP Infusion has been around for about 20 years. They had partner in just about every corner of the networking world and were running on hardware that most of us had deployed. It was pretty cool to realize that this was a group that had been doing it behind the scenes for a little while.




The OcNOS product seem to be pretty straight-forward, giving you option after option of how to configure your network. With support for just about everything you could want to do and combined with two decades of experience, IP Infusion definitely seems to have it together when it comes to the software behind a Software Defined Network.

Now back at the bar, about that SDN Stuff..

Sounds pretty simple huh? I'm not sure if all of this makes sense to you at this point, but I was starting to catch on.



There are a ton of places to read up on SDN, and I would encourage you to. The place to start is with the Open Network Foundation and their overview of SDN.

Once I wrapped my head around that overly simplified concept, we ordered another round and applied virtualization to it

So you've got this software defined switch, now let's scale up and build a full network out of multiple software defined devices and make it do neat stuff.

Scaling Your Software Defined Network

Here's how it works: Stick a virtual server running the VMWare NSX software on some server hardware in a data center, some bare-metal switches with bad ass silicon running open switch software throughout your enterprise and voila: software defined networks


From the VMWare Blog: NSX-V: Multi-site Options and Cross-VC NSX Design Guide

Branching Out

Next, let's bridge some other remote locations! 
Grab a bear-metal box and connect it to a few different types of internet connections at the remote site. Say, a cable modem connection, a satellite connection and an LTE connection. 

Into the weeds for a second: Using SD-WAN on Your SDN

This part is called SD-WAN: plugging in different internets and letting the software figure out which to use, for what. You can even get optimized performance over the web by using services like TeloIP.




Back at Your Network...

So you have this bear-metal box with ports plugged into a few different providers, it's the same concept as before: setup a local stack of VMWare running to host the brains of the bare metal at this remote location. What's cool is you can get this stack to sync with the main data center over the internet (or even up to a cloud service). 

Now we can load on things like load balancing for the 3 links, fail over, firewalling, security profiles etc. all of which are defined at the main site which is connected to the remote site via its internet connections to the main data center.

Boom: software defined distributed virtualized networks. 

The beauty of this, as I see it, is being able to manage, change, adapt, and build your network the way that you see fit. Instead of having a canned set of features and functions defined by a vendor, running on crazy expensive hardware, you get to do what you need, when you need it, where you need it. It's controlled by you, it's cost-effective, and it scales with you. The real power here isn't about next generations of new network gear, it's about transforming Information Technology from being about how you MOVE data, to a network that is about the dataIt's no longer going to be about pipes to provide access to data, its about data creating pipes to move itself more efficiently.

When you start to do things like defining profiles, it gets very interesting, very quickly. As virtual servers spin up with security profiles assigned, a series of events can happen. For example, a virtual switch port is created to immediately and automatically apply firewall services attached to it so that as soon as it's online it's protected. Things like this are almost magic to me.

You don't have to stand up a case for a server, install the hardware in to the box, and then install the software. You don't have to take it to the data center, plug it a power strip, find a switch port to plug it into. On top of that you don't need a network engineer to configure the settings on that port, assign it to a VLAN then go to the firewall, apply firewall policies to the port or IP of the server, and then make sure it all works

You click a few buttons, test it, deploy it, and it's all done. 
It's amazing. 

So how does this apply to wireless?

Network constructs built to support all types of data delivery methods will be easy to rapidly deploy, that's gonna be a given. The data center is going to change because of this though I would imagine. Instead of a stable full of network engineers, you'll have a few engineers that tell a group of developers and administrators how the network needs to be deployedThey will hammer away on keyboards to script and program automation and the network engineers will build the policies, routes, and so on for the network to operateFrom a central facility you will be able to efficiently setup you're entire network, branch offices and so onYou'll do it on cost-effective equipment, custom silicon, and power it all with software

Could Network services be moving closer towards developers and programming?

Now, from the network administrator perspective, because Wi-Fi is essentially just another way to get data on the network data plane, it will be provisioned as just another line of code on the virtual networkAs far as all the other technologies, a LoRA gateway, an IoT collector, a small cell, or a DAS; it's all just an extension of the network at that pointA programmer or developer will make the appropriate markup and any device that falls into that profile or on a created NIC instance which will follow the same rules as everything else.

Authentication will take place over 802.11x as alot of it is done today, and policies will be provisioned down to the user level deviceAssuming all the future equipment supports it, which most of today's gear does, its going to be as seamless an integration as running a cable, which I imagine is going to be phased out just about everywhere except to interconnect devices. 'Cus why cable if you don't have to? No switches = no switch ports for users = no cables. 

What that means to me now, is that from a centralized location I can set policies to handle how data is ingested into the network. What type of data, when and where it comes from, how to secure it and prioritize it can all be taken into account. Worrying about how and if it will all be connected and how and if it will all be secured gets normalized across my networkNetwork troubleshooting is replaced by machine to machine learning, dogs and cats living together .. you get my point.

Where Does Wi-Fi and a Wireless Engineer fit into This?


For the wireless network to operate efficiently, obviously there is still some hardcore engineering and design that needs to take place, and it will honestly become more important than ever. For now. No seriously, if there's one thing we know is that the clock is ticking on the introduction of automated RF tools fed data by sensors and the network itself to handle the on-going calibration of the wireless network off to processes and artificially intelligent controllers.

Think about it. In 5 years a room full of programmers and network analysts will be taking direction from a CCIE-type. None of those folks are going to know a thing about RF, nor are they going to care. The network will take care of itself and if it doesn't they'll find a vendor that can provide that. There are already some manufacturers on the market and more will adapt. No network team is going to want to hassle with RF because there will be so few of them. The importance of building a stable wireless environment will mean an investment in resources, tools, software, and sensors to ensure its functionality

There will still need to be someone to coordinate this though, and that's where I see the transitions coming for wireless network engineersCoordinating frequencies across multiple RF devices, ensuring proper design and installation, making sure the wireless equipment is installed in a way that the processes that are configuring the wireless devices packet-by-packet can work effectively, and so on.



It's crazy to think that bringing network services together can push the engineering folks back apart. There used to be two types of people in the back of the facility: RF people and network people. Then, that transformed into Wireless Network Engineers. What's crazy to see is that as services become easier to deploy and bridge together, but using a more complicated back-end like VMWare NSX, it takes away from the "simple networking" that enables wireless nerds to be route / switch nerds as wellAs the networking world becomes more centralized and driven by an IT team that consists of more developers than engineers, I think the wireless folks will find themselves getting back to their roots

Specializing in the "wireless" component of a wireless network engineer will be the keyHaving skilled staff dedicated to making sure that the RF environments are stable and the machines aren't destroying them is gonna be paramountHowever, I think the days of someone wearing two hats to deploy large-scale enterprise networks, especially when you have something as powerful as SDN looming, are numbered.

I could be wrong though. Just an opinion... ;)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Don't Do Dumb Stuff. My advice to High Schoolers at the 1st South Texas Idea Fest!

When I was asked to give a talk at the first South Texas Idea Fest, I had no idea what I was going to talk about. Technology, how to build a business, how to produce events, ways to give back to the community .. I had no clue. When it was all said and done, I wanted to tell the group of enthusiastic high schoolers what no one ever told me .. at least not anyone other than my parents.

Don't Do Dumb Stuff.

So, I put together a talk about how to find yourself, find your passions, and change the world. I tried to sprinkle some truth in there and a little bit of humor, and I think it came out OK.
Give it a view if you're interested! Thanks for watching!


About the South Texas Ideas Festival

The South Texas Ideas Festival, or STXi, will cultivate active young citizens. Serving as an exposé about the life and resources of the Rio Grande Valley, STXi will be a platform for an audience of young adults to engage in a Culture-Community-Identity dialogue.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Building a case for Community Connectivity: The Frontera Colonia Project


Growing up in South Texas, it was sometimes difficult to understand that there was an entire world outside of our neighborhoods. I'm sure this is the same for every city and town across the world, as perspective is only gained through experience. 


No one captures the Rio Grande Valley of Texas like Gabriel Salazar - http://www.gabrielsalazarart.com/

I was fortunate enough to be raised in an area that was void of a lot of the outside distractions that other children my age had. Our family grew up in a small house, on a dirt road, in a South Texas colonia where we were the only house in the neighborhood with indoor plumbing. As a kid, I didn't know that my neighbors out houses weren't something cool and different, I just assumed that maybe their dads were a little bit more creative. I like to tell everyone that my first Internet was a brown set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. All of our homework, all of our research, and all of our information came from the encyclopedias and the National Geographic World Atlas whose pages were bent and torn from over use. (I always loved the flag section). 
We were also fortunate enough to have family that we could go visit outside of the area, so our perspective was always widening on what the world could be. 

The information that we had access to was not same that other children in our neighborhood had access to, even though some of them, in my childish and naive view, were lucky enough to travel once or twice a year to places like Iowa. As a 6 year-old it wasn’t my time to understand the toll it took on their families as migrant farm workers.

As I grew up and grew out of this area, I've never lost sight of where I came from, especially because of the fact that there are still so many neighborhoods, and kids, in these parts of the world, even here in the United States, that have never made it out of last century. There are over 2,000 colonias in the United States with more than 1,800 of those in the State of Texas alone.




I live in Deep South Texas in an area known as the Rio Grande Valley. I say Deep South Texas because when I say South Texas most people say San Antonio or Houston or Laredo, not knowing that there's an entire other community three hours south of the furthest thing that they can think of. The largest city that we are close to is Monterrey, Mexico, which is about an hour shorter of a drive then going to San Antonio. 

This little strip of the world is torn between two countries, two cultures, and left behind in the information age. A study, as reported from the Center for Public Integrity, showed that our broadband adoption rate was the absolute lowest in the country, at 37%. When you combine that with the number of households below the poverty line, and statistics after statistic about the number of families that earn less than $15,000 per year, it paints a very somber view of our community. 


Data from the Texas Tribune.

When terms like the "digital divide" and the "homework gap" are thrown around throughout the rest of the United States I smirk because the places where it matters the most, at least to me, is in places like this that are so impoverished they generally don't make the radar for what people think about when they think about those types of neighborhoods in the United States. You have what the majority of the U.S. considers tough living conditions, then you have the reality of how worse it can actually be. There may be more similarities between our area of the world and Mexico than there are between us and the United States.

While programs exist to try and push gigabit access to schools, 25 Mbps Broadband connections at home, and tablets or computers into every students hand, there is still an overlooked and significant part of our country that struggles with things like streetlights, paved roads, in-home sewage, and electricity. In addition to this you have a group of working-class parents that are pretty disconnected and may not understand why their kids need access at home. 
For so many in communities like this, broadband access is a luxury that few can afford, however, in order to complete assignments in school and keep up with the other students, it is a necessity. The schools push the students to digital learning, but don’t offer the resources to the community to follow through with every student. In some areas there is no test score for keeping the students connected, so it doesn’t get the attention that other pieces of paper on the superintendent’s desk do.

In an effort to help usher in a new age of information into these neighborhoods, I have always tried to find a solution that would work best to provide connectivity to those students that are getting left behind in the classroom because their families can't afford a connectivity solution at home. Whether it's because food and clothing are more important than Internet, or because the parents don't understand the importance of it, the students are the ones that are unfairly suffering in this push to move everyone over to a device based educational system.

Now that Wi-Fi has been somewhat commoditized, the price points are dropping lower than ever, and there is enough capacity on educational networks to afford some room, we've reached a point where connecting everyone in is no longer just a pipe dream. For people who are trying to help rural America and other parts of the world that have been left out of the connectivity race, there is some light at the end of tunnel.


My local City Commission meeting

Still, what we find holding some of these projects back is far less tangible than a piece of equipment, a place to mount it, or something to plug it into. The political back-and-forth games that are played sometimes hinder the ability for communities to move forward even though they have all the pieces of the puzzle sitting right in front of them. Whether it's because they quantify that the socio-economic impact of this is as significant as it is, or they simply don't understand the benefit of it to the students and the community, more times often than not a simple no can deflate an entire program.

Luckily, with as much exposure as we’ve given this topic in our area, whether through my business or my nonprofit, we've been able to reach a few communities that are willing to let us help them out. One of those communities happens to be the county in which I live, Hidalgo County of Texas. A commissioner who is the current County Commissioner for Precinct 2 of Hidalgo County, Eddie Cantu, believes in creating a level and equal playing field for everyone in the district. I’m not saying others don’t, I’m just saying he’s doing something about it when no one else is. 




This part of the county is a unique area. On one side he has some of the most wealthy people in the county and on the other he has the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. The haves and the have-nots are both over-represented in Precinct 2. From the country club to the colonia, Precinct 2 presents a unique opportunity to do something about a problem that plagues communities across the United States.

Coming together to support the project

Leveraging the partnerships that I've been able to forge with elected county officials and the local school districts, we've all come together to come up with a way that we can help solve the problem with resources that, of the most part, are already available. One of the larger projects that has been successful in Hidalgo County has been a Colonia Streetlight project. It's difficult to imagine growing up in the neighborhood that doesn't have streetlights, but when you combine a lack of proper lighting, a high-level of crime, a high level of poverty, and a low level of education, it makes for a pretty bad recipe for community. Lupe, La Union Del Pueblo Entero, has been able to make significant strides in helping counties and cities recognize the need for something as simple as appropriate lighting in their neighborhoods. 


Why are these streetlights in colonias important to connectivity?

Well, it gives us a place to mount the equipment that doesn’t cost us monthly fees, while providing power. An added benefit to these streetlights: they are all solar powered. They're not operated by the local electric company or co-op, they are powered by the sun and installed using county government funds. From the Wi-Fi perspective, this makes them an absolute godsend. No contract with utility providers, and no per month fee for electrical service. 
Granted, I recognize that this is a unique situation, but a solar powered streetlight can solve more than one problem; providing adequate lighting coverage as well as a mounting assets for wireless networks, security cameras, and any other network connect a device that would benefit the community. 

Our project gains momentum

So, we have the vertical assets, the light poles, that we could use to mount equipment and we have a stake in the project from the county commissioner. That's a huge chunk out of the way for a project like this. Again, sometimes the hardest thing is getting someone to just say yes to a project.

Next, we needed a way to tie the network back into the internet and the local school district. The goal is to provide student access to the school network, maintained and operated by the ISD, and provide public access through the local community resource center. You see, E-Rate won’t let us use e-rate funded assets and service to provide general service to the public (without going through a bunch of hoops for usage based models and other hurdles), and that’s fine. But how do you identify and segment who’s a student and who’s not when you are trying to provide access to everyone to increase the overall education level of the community? This, again, is where having a community partner that is willing to handle that segmentation on their network is a huge asset.


Working with the school district

Instead of over complicating the connection, I approached the local school district and asked them for a simple switch port on the POE switch, the same that would provide a connection to a single wireless access point. The only difference is that this would enable an entire neighborhood for connectivity instead of a single AP. 
Skipping past the political route and going straight to the decision-makers in the information technology department, proved to be successful. I didn’t want what we were trying to accomplish to get lost through meeting after meeting and conversation after conversation. If we went that route, but the time it got to the IT department they’d think we were trying to get them to do all the work and build out a community network. Again, knowledge is power, and the people that hold the knowledge about how something like this would actually work are sometimes the people that immediately say no, because of fear of the scope of the project and not understanding a simplified way in which it can work. In this case, a little understanding, education, and a white board with multiple colored markers went a long way.

Keeping tabs on where we are

Now, we had the political buy-in, the mounting assets, the electrical, and the network connection. Add to that my role as a technology consultant providing the designing, engineering, and building out networks of this type, and we're off to a pretty good start. All we need now is some equipment to type this together.

Why hasn’t this been done before?

The problem with legacy wireless equipment is that it has traditionally been a bit cost prohibitive to think about deploying 20 to 50 wireless access points in a neighborhood. With price tags upwards of $1000 per unit, going into an area that had little or no funding, it was easy to understand how this would never work. However now, our industry is getting down into lower price points for quality equipment making the hardware and overall solutions attainable. 

Choosing the right equipment manufacturer

Through my experience in the industry, building out wireless ISPs to connect rural markets to the Internet and to serve places that were unreachable by cable or fiber, one product brand has always stood the test of time. It started as the Motorola Canopy product and ushered in a new way for Internet service providers to provide access. With thousands of deployments across the globe, the Canopy product was synonymous with providing reliable, robust, and instant connectivity to markets that didn't have the infrastructure or were too far out of the city's reach. 

As more and more deployments of Canopy equipment popped up, other manufactures started to recognize the need for a solution such as this. So across the past 20 years, this industry is a thriving one, with point to multipoint and point to point wireless driving hundreds of millions of dollars per year. 


As times changed and products weaved in and out of this segment of products, the Canopy line was eventually split off from Motorola and Cambium Networks was established. Now, in 2017, The product lines that they are offering include the e500, which is an affordable, outdoor, IP 67 rated, access point. 




With their strength in their legacy point to multipoint product lines, including the addition of their affordable and market driven production of the ePMP line, they now present a complete holistic solution to solve problems like those we have in hidalgo county.


What is the cost of something like this?

Now that we are able to properly identify the equipment that it would take to establish the infrastructure and create a network that would support what we are trying to do, the last leg, and sometimes the most important, is funding. We can have every intention, approval, mounting location, and functioning design, but without the funding for something like this, it’s all just a great idea. The good thing about a network like this is while it used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, over the last few years, that price is now dropped to a much smaller amount. In our specific area where we're talking about our project, we're looking at around $50,000 to complete. From a funding perspective, it’s easier to find $50k than it is to find $500k.


How are we going to pay for this?

While there are a number of avenues to go down as far as funding, I'd like to highlight a few that may work, depending on your environment.


New opportunity arising: Financial Institutions through CRA

Jordana Barton (@JordanaBarton) with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has created a way to increase a financial institutions' community reinvestment act score, while giving their local community the resources to build out of network like this. Her entire handbook and all of her research can be found online here
It's a great way to get financial institutions more involved in the infrastructure of this type of service that is so desperately needed. I’m not totally sure of how it all works, as banking really isn’t my thing, but I would imagine that local financial institutions could provide a way to fund these projects across a handful of years for municipalities. That way, the municipalities get what they need for their citizens, the community gets the connectivity they need for their students and economic development, and the banks get that gold star for reinvesting in their communities. Sounds awesome.

Driving Economic Development

Economic Development Corporations, which are generally funded by the city sales tax, are also a place that can at least start to build the foundation of one of these networks through independent funding. As EDC's try and bring more businesses in, either through offering incentives or by following the example of cities like Mission, Texas, and developing the workforce to be more technically minded, it shows that changing the educational attainment level of the citizens of the community can help drive economic development. When trying to attract businesses to a market, having a solid workforce of students and community can mean the difference between landing a large business and not. 

Think about it. Think about the company you work for and say you had to make the decision to open new office. Would you relocate YOUR business to: 
A. a community that is one of the least connected where students are receiving no applicational education of technology devices or
B: a community with a path to provide a broadband solution for every student and citizen of their community?


Wait, what about E-Rate?


Unfortunately, there isn't any good news for E-Rate. I could be wrong, and I welcome the feedback if I am. While there have been some major developments and changes in the way that funds are made available, it still only covers students for half the day. I still struggle to understand how districts are funded to only provide. 

I still struggle to understand how it makes sense for E-Rate to provide access to schools, but all of that infrastructure, access, and connectivity is not allowed to be used after hours.

E-Rate does a great job from 8AM to 4PM, but what about from 4PM to 8AM? There’s got to be a better way and I can’t wait to see someone take this on. If the citizens of the community are paying into USAC for E-Rate equipment and services that are available 24-hours a day, why can our students only use it during school hours? That’s a pretty bad investment. 
Imagine if we could only use our highways and federally funded roads from 8AM to 4PM? No would would stand for that, whey do we stand for it with broadband access? Grrr.

To achieve our solution, we are simply extending the network into the community using equipment and services that are paid for through a different source. We’re not using E-rate equipment or transport for anyone other than students, and the students are required to use their district issued credentials on district approved devices to gain access to the ISD network. 

Where does that put us? 

In our situation, we now have all of the components ready, except the equipment.
The County is providing the vertical assets, the power (via solar), the broadband connection for non-students, and as much equipment as they can for installation to reduce cost.
The School District is providing the off-load for student connectivity via the single POE port we asked ‘em for.
My company, Frontera Consulting, is engineering and overseeing the build-out of the network and overall functionality of it. Now all we need is the equipment.

"The man who asks a questions is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life." - Confucius.

Seeking a partner in this project and to help prove out the case of how this type of network can impact communities across the globe, I decided to ask Cambium Networks for their help. I did it by using this video:




Cambium Networks has now committed to helping us build out this project by providing the equipment and licensing necessary to make it happen. I cannot explain how grateful I am. Its not even about being grateful for the ability to work on this project as much as it is being thankful for those who have no idea that we are even doing this. 



While we may have an idea about the number of students that this will directly impact the first day we turn it on, there is absolutely no way that we can measure what the impact of this project will be on day 2, or over the course of its lifetime. All we know is that we are doing something right by our community and by the world by helping out. 

Now, with a proven model, it’s time to get to work. 
There are hundreds of thousands of places like this around the world. While we may not have all of the pieces of the puzzle in each of them, we have the knowledge of where to get them and how to get them. Let me know if I can help you build the puzzle - drew@gofrontera.com


-drew