Let’s start with the legacy systems that started the whole municipal wireless market. The most basic access points (APs) were single radios with a single, or dual, omni-directional antenna design. These systems covered a fixed area and then simultaneously handled backhaul to the next radio. The first problem with this design was simply the fact bandwidth drops by ½ every hop. Although they also supported diversity for the antennas, that didn’t significantly increase the range. It did reduce fading since 802.11b wasn’t really created with a multipath environment in mind.
Eventually, manufacturers went to 802.11g and started adding 2-3 or more radios with secondary radios for backhaul. Using 5GHz frequencies (to hand off the backhaul functions) increased user throughput, the multi-hop bandwidth loss problem was effectively eliminated, especially with dual 5GHz radios. The multi-radio design also spawned some extremely unique AP designs. Manufacturers started adding directional antennas, multiple frequency coverage, integrated sector antennas, beam-forming, and a few other ideas that don’t pass the smell test for actual performance advantages. However, there are so many systems out there because there is an actual need for different features. I have used, and will continue to use, many of these products because of their uniqueness.
Jump forward to post-802.11N MIMO technologies, and the number of options are mind-boggling. I typically go through no fewer than 5 designs and multiple products when trying to find the best design for a client. I still have questions on design ideas that I haven’t deployed yet that I’m testing. Since most APs today are multiple radios, the exception being the system we are designing for TriadLand, we are simply going to discuss the 2.4GHz side of the APs.
Because 802.11n is simply faster than b/g, we will stay focused there with the idea of backward compatibility. 1×1 MIMO, 2×2 MIMO, 2×3 MIMO, single-polarity, multi-polarity, and beam-forming are all being deployed. Which is best? Actually, most of them have some unique feature. It depends on the application. The right answer is the one that solves the problem within a specific budgetary or financial target. So does that mean there is a universal AP? The short answer is no. The really long answer, which I’m going to need 2 more pages to cover, is still no, but there are ways around most of the issues. Some of the answers, I really don’t know right now because I’m still testing some new ideas. Recent discussions and some new projects have gotten peaked my interest.
Let’s get back to our simplest AP design–our “Tales from the Towers” model. It’s a single omni-directional antenna on a 1×1 single stream 802.11 AP. If all clients are 802.11n compatible, then it can support 30-35 802.11b/g/n clients with a total throughput of about 30-50Mbps, TCP/IP. This assumes good LOS coverage, low-interference, and a low-reflectivity environment. We improved the range by using a very-high gain collinear antenna, which has a higher gain over most of the AP’s that use 6-9dBi antennas. It’s not perfect, but it’s cheap, and sometimes that’s all one needs.
802.11n has a distinct advantage over 802.11b/g, MIMO technology. To take true advantage of it, you need multiple either multiple antennas or multi-polarity dual-feed antennas. The question is: do you use multiple vertical antennas or multiple antennas in different polarities? Do you use 2×2 MIMO, 2×3 MIMO, or 3×3 MIMO? Which one works better with legacy 802.11b/g devices, and does it matter?
To answer that question, you first have to understand antenna polarity. The most commonly used polarities are vertical, horizontal, and circular. We used a vertical polarity omni-directional on our original design, which means vertically polarized in relation to the ground. We did it mainly for budget reasons, but how well it works depends on what the polarity of the client device is.
Let’s examine the typical laptop. Early WiFi-enabled laptops simply had small wires or circuit board antennas embedded on the WiFi card internally. Since the board/wire is typically laid flat in parallel to the table, the antenna would be considered a horizontal polarity antenna. So what happens when a vertical antenna connects to a client with a horizontal polarity antenna? The result is up to a 20dB loss of signal assuming both antennas on both sides are the exact same specification in alternate polarities. In reality, most laptops now have wire antennas that are run up the side of the LCD display and sometimes across the top. That gives it both a vertical and horizontal polarity. This is the exact same antenna design for your AM/FM car radio that is embedded inside the windshield.
Let’s start with the idea of how an antenna creates gain. Antenna gain effectively multiplies the signal being fed into it by borrowing the signal from other directions and refocusing it. For example, a 0dBi antenna is actually theoretical. It’s simply a point in space that radiates an equivalent amount of signal in every direction. Think of the center point of a ball. However, add a driven element and a reflector element, along a horizontal support arm at specific distances and you have a 2-element Yagi antenna that has 6dBi gain in one direction.
We will start with a 0dB antenna. A 0dB gain vertical antenna is really a 2.15dBi gain vertical antenna. That means it transmits 2.15db more power along the ground plane than it does straight up. If we make the antenna longer in multiples of the wavelength, then we get more gain. In reality, the highest non-collinear design I have seen is 12dBi in 2.4GHz. The resulting transmission pattern now gets squashed as less signal radiates upward and more signal gets transmitted along the ground for more range. Antenna theory is still developing with new algorithms coming out not only by engineers and scientists, but also by software programs that are discovering more efficient designs.
So how does 15dBi gain compare to 0dBi? In general, signal doubles in distance for every 6dB of gain. A 3dB signal gain increases the EIRP by a factor of 2. 6dBi gain would increase your EIRP output by 4 times which gives you about twice as much range. 15dBi antenna increases your range roughly by a factor of 6 times.
How does this play out in real life? Keep in mind that there will be obstructions in most areas. That means that getting ¾ of the way through a brick wall isn’t a whole lot more effective than getting ½ of the way through the wall. For walls or obstructions with less attenuation, we discussed how a 15dBi antenna can make penetration through an extra wall a reality due to a 6-8dB increase, or more, over the antennas that most metro APs used. A dual-polarity antenna with a lower gain can produce similar results. I have seen 2.4GHz multi-polarity antennas penetrate better than 900MHz single-polarity radios.
2×2 MIMO provides the option of 2 antennas, both in the same polarity or one horizontal and one vertical. There are even antennas that can do dual polarity or circular polarity in an omni-directional, or directional ,design. There are other variations on MIIMO, such as 2×3, 3×3, or more. If the antennas are directional, polarity is simple and cheap. If the antennas are omni-directional, vertical polarity is still cheap. Horizontally polarized antennas were much more expensive as gain goes up, but recent product releases demonstrate multi-feed dual-polarity antennas have come down significantly. Even dual-polarity parabolic dishes have dropped in price. We will cover these in future articles.
One of the more common horizontally-polarized antennas is the waveguide antenna. In an omni-directional design, they can deliver 13-15dBi, or more, of gain. Directional versions range from 14-18dBi. We used directional wave-guide antennas in some of our installations, and they worked great with 802.11b. One test we did demonstrated a laptop with a Cisco PCMCIA card connecting at 1.2 miles inside a fast-food restaurant.
Another popular design is the circular polarity antenna. The advantage to this antenna is that it transmits in all polarities simultaneously. The disadvantage over a single polarity antenna is that it sacrifices 3dB of gain for that multi-polarity coverage. Most circular polarity antennas are directional, although there are variations such as the Lindenblad design which is omni-directional. All antennas are compromises in terms of gain, direction, design, and cost. That is the reason it’s important to first define the target client before even considering any design idea.
There are a lot of variables to proper design of a system. Although the AP should be the easiest part, not including the antennas, beyond design scope, even firmware of the devices is important. Some APs handle packets differently than others. We discussed CPU overhead and real throughput in earlier articles. Firmware bugs and features also make a huge difference. Now throw in an antenna designs, network management, authentication, security, terrain, building construction, aesthetics, and even unknown challenges that occur after deployment, and this is when having a consultant who simply has more experience, provides value. However, even consultants are another variable, as evidenced by many differences of opinions and designs that have been deployed all over the world. Look for systems that are deployed and functioning and apply those ideas to your needs. Next month we get back to work since Grandma and Grandpa have now discovered Netflix.