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Fon Flirts With Fonera FonPod Outdoor Router

December 15, 2008

Note: I meant to post this over the weekend, but I had to wait for issues with my bloghost to clear up.

After three years of intense demand, Fon CEO Martin Varsavsky is featuring a no-promises, not-in-production weatherized Fonera in his blog. This is perhaps out of envy for Meraki’s recent publicity for their tiny meshing APs and rugged solar-powered routers.

Here is Fon’s current concept of an outdoor wifi appliance:

[Click Us]

This device does not currently have an official name, but I like to call it “Fonera FonPod”. Isn’t that catchy? 🙂

I’m not wild about the design of this enclosure as presented. It’s a flattened box, about 50% larger than La Fonera 2. It seems large enough to house a flat-panel antenna, but that does not appear to be what Fon has in mind. The box splits vertically into front and back halves, and is held together with 10 visible screws. The front would appear to be white plastic with a honeycomb pattern which we have never seen associated with Fon until now. It’s probably another company’s production model with a “Fon” sticker pasted to the front. 😉

The top of the case has an antenna jack, and the bottom appears to have a compression port for admitting cables through an airtight seal. This would make FonPod the first Fonera which has the antenna opposite the cables. All previous models have had jacks and antennas together along the rear, making installation anywhere but a table or shelf awkward. Suprisingly, the rear of the enclosure appears to have three additional connections for WAN, LAN(!) and Power. These connections don’t appear to be weather-resistant, and if these are on the rear, the bottom connection becomes a mystery.

The appearance of LAN suggests that the Fonera inside is based on the Plus or 2.0 models. While a LAN jack would seem pointless for a device that will be installed in remote places, it might be useful for passing an Ethernet connection through to additional equipment, like another AP or a networked security camera. Availability of a USB jack would be useful for similar reasons, and probably enable the use of much cheaper hardware. I’ve been advocating the marketing of Fon routers to metro wifi and building managements for this reason. A simple instrument package could be plugged into such extra ports to provide traffic cams, triangulate gunshots and report weather and smog conditions. That added value could make Fon more attractive than Meraki for some large and wealthy markets.

Bear in mind that the device Fon proposes is still a router, not an access point. This is sort of overkill for the kind of work it will be doing. Let us pray that the LAN port is finally bridged, instead of senselessly NAT’ted. Fon would benefeit by outgrowing their tendancy to repurpose existing products by merely rewrapping them.

[Click Me]

The back of the case has some exposed mounting studs, apparently used to attach the hardware within, and the backplate dips up and down along the seam where other screws ring the perimeter. It would seem that the halves are clamped around a very large, vertically aligned gasket, and the plastic half is rather soft. Those screws are going to rust very quickly, and that sort of gasket is just not practical for long, leakproof life. There appears to be some mounting hardware inside the shipping box, but it is hard to tell whether FonPod must be attached to a pipe, a flat surface, or either. Since there is a (?)7dbi omnidirectional dipole antenna included, this mounting hardware probably does not provide pivoting azimuth for pointing a directional antenna.

I’d like to take a crack at designing a better enclosure, so here are some of my thoughts. For some of my inspiration, see the below photos of an actual ClearWire wireless broadband device deployed in markets like nearby Corpus Christi TX. Only twice the size of La Fonera 2, it is based on technology similar to WiMax, which will soon replace it. This particular device isn’t for outdoors, but rather sits vertically on a desk or shelf with one side facing the ClearWire tower. It integrates a large flatpanel antenna with a network device in the same package, and the case is basically a deep sleeve into which the electronics slide from below. If it was possible to seal this and make all connections through the bottom, it would make a decent outdoor enclosure.

[Click Us]


My concept of Fonera FonPod is an enclosure designed to resemble a 2x scale La Fonera Plus. It has an internal flatpanel antenna like Fontenna, and ships with Power over Ethernet (PoE) adapters. The mounting bracket should permit installation upon either vertical wall or pole, and feature adjustable angle of elevation. The case should be manufactured as a seamless PVC shell with the bottom having the only opening, through a recessed partition.

The partition would have a fitting to allow passage of 1-2 cables through a seal. The partition would have a gasket around it’s perimeter, and would have a framework mounted to it’s inner side. All internal components would be mounted to that framework so that they all slide in and out as though in a drawer.

[Click Us]

A standard La Fonera 1/+/2 would simply be inserted inside and attached to internal cables.

An optional kit would consist of a holder for a dozen or so standard rechargeable batteries, and include a simple voltage regulator, so that Fonera FonPod might be powered by sun or wind.

FonPod II, which might be a WiMax FonPod, would look nearly identical, but the flat panel antenna would be aimed at the WiMax base station and there would be a dipole wifi antenna pointing down from the bottom, or there could be a second flat panel antenna connected with a cable.

So, what do you folks think? Add your comments below, and feel welcome to include links to pics or diagrams of your own.


New WiFi Roaming Protocol Established

August 30, 2008

This is great news for wifi networks which, until now, would drop connections when guests moved from AP to AP. This is especially good for those who use wifi VOIP handsets, since it promises to provide a seamless handoff from AP to AP just like the cellular phone network does!

Called 802.11r, or “Fast Basic Service Set Transition” (catchy, huh?), it is the result of four years of research and testing. The IEEE feels that it’s ready for the public, and they approved the standard July 15th.

My educated guess is that this standard could be added to many existing wifi routers, APs and client adapters via software update. Let’s all let Fon know that we need this added to the OpenWRT/Fon hotspot firmware! It would be wonderful to be able to stroll around in zones where Fon and/or their partner networks have lots of hotspots, and enjoy unbroken wifi connections, voice calls and instant messages.

How does it work? I don’t know yet. However, it would seem likely that there must be a background infrastructure where a client’s connection is proxied upstream, and so wifi APs downstream are slaved to a central controller. This isn’t too new of an idea, but ratifying a standard is an important, big step in making this widely compatible. Hopefully, it can serve legacy wifi clients at the same time, and is also compatible with wifi encryption.

This brings Fon’s original dream back into range; Fon was originally concieved of as a FonSpot/JoikuSpot type software application running on PCs, and later, as a hardware router running customized firmware (Linksys), which provided wifi for VOIP handsets. This would function much like today’s femtocells, only it would challenge the telco monopolies by providing cheap calls over wifi. Wifi for other devices was merely a potential side benefeit, and there was no emphasis on “revolutions”, “communities” or selling day passes.

A combination of 802.11r plus a transparent SIP proxy would permit many people to share the same wifi connection for VOIP calls. Currently, SIP would not work at a Fon hotspot for incoming calls, without port forwarding. The consequence of that would likely be to block anyone else from using SIP at the same hotspot.

Read more at VoIP Watch, PC World, and The Wireless Weblog.


A Case Study of Fon and Meraki

July 18, 2008

Canadian researchers Catherine Middleton and Amelia Bryne Potter, have written a paper comparing the hardware, software and community aspects of Meraki Wireless Network with Fon Wireless, Ltd. Written in May of this year, it has been published on the Internet:
Is it Good to Share?(.pdf link) (Alternate Link)

The authors do not appear to have any links with either company, though Ms. Potter is a member of a community wireless research project. There are some very interesting points made about Fon, which echo ones made by myself and other outspoken Foneros over the last two years. There seems to be more criticism for Fon, but some of the comparison points might be a little unfair. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, or in this case, Meraki lime to Fon orange. 😉


La Naked Fontenna

July 6, 2007

My foreign correspondant sent me pictures of the inside of La Fontenna today. The plastic case is sealed somehow without glue, so it is probably done ultrasonicaly. This one was opened with a small electric craft saw.

The antenna inside is simply a cheap printed circuit board suspended over a thin metal reflector. I doubt the La Fontenna is priced fairly at $20.00 + shipping (but perhaps not so bad at $2 + $5 shipping).

CLICK ANY PICTURE TO SEE FULL-SIZE


La Fontenna Review

June 29, 2007

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to blog about La Fontenna since Martin’s video blog where he demonstrates it in conjuction with a La Fonera and an 802.11n router he has in his office.

After the excitement left me, I realized that Martin was not actually performing a real test of his antenna, he was merely pointing out the window and making speculations. He fails to mention that any laptop hundreds of feet, to 1.5 miles away, would need to be along the beam of his fontenna, at the same elevation, and need a similar antenna to transmit back. Also, the buildings in his area would probably cause a problem due to the Fresnel Effect.

Here are the range of hotspots which Martin Varsavsky describes in his video blog. Martin also doesn’t make it clear that La Fontenna is highly directional. If one did not know this, they would think he was describing gigantic *circular* hotspots!

I recieved my promo code for a $2 (+ $5 shipping!) La Fontenna in an email from Fon on June 12. I thought about it for a couple of days, and then ordered it the evening of Thursday, June 14. My La Fontenna arrived by FedEx on the afternoon of June 21, exactly a week later! Not bad at all. It appeared to be shipped from the same outsourcer in Libertyville, IL who shipped my La Fonera.

I had been concerned that my Fontenna might be lost, since the invoice emailed to me showed the wrong zipcode. Fon’s Shop displayed my name and address when I ordered, and asked that I verify or update it, and I did. These corrections were NOT carried forward to the order I was actually making! Fon does not include the shipment tracking number with the invoice, so I opened a ticket on Fon’s HELP page for customer support.

Suprisingly (heh), I did not recieve a response within 24 hours, as Fon promises. Five days later, on June 20, a Fon representative responded with my tracking number and advised me that *I* needed to contact FedEx to resolve the problem. The tracking number was appreciated, and I could see that my package was on it’s way. But when I called FedEx, they told me that it is the *sender* who is the only one who they could accept an address correction from. Fon needs to update their procedures, and contact Brightstar US, Inc. directly, and then send the customer a resolution notice!

About the Tests

For each of 6 tests, I kept my laptop in exactly the same positon on my front porch, in exactly the same orientation. I was careful to avoid coming too close to it, or to stand between it and the La Fonera. I chose to move the Fon hotspot instead of my laptop because the object was to see how well my personal experience benefeited. This is where my laptop would usually be. My laptop runs Windows XP SP2, and my wifi card is a Proxim Orinoco Gold ABG PCMCIA card, which has a reputation for providing particuarly accurate signal strength measurements.

Admittedly, this was not a truely scientific test. I didn’t try a multitude of positions or use professional testing instruments. I attempted to make it as “real life” as possible. I do think my tests were very reasonable, given the fact that there were probably fewer obstacles for the wifi signal than average at my house.

When attaching the reflector and La Fontenna, I made certain they were pointed directly toward my laptop. La Fonera’s stock dipole antenna was carefully positioned fully-extended and upright. The stock antenna creates a torus (doughnut) shaped pattern, with the antenna in the center. The reflector focuses half of this torus in one direction, producing a sort of teardrop shape, and the Fontenna is supposed to create a large circular lobe with the antenna at one edge, and a much smaller lobe produced just behind it.

La Fontenna Technical Specifications

From Fon’s online shop:
Frequency Range: 2400 MHz 2500 MHz
Antenna gain-without cable: 7 dBi
Antenna gain-with cable: 6.5 dBi
VSWR 2.0: 1 Max.
Polarization: Linear, vertical
Impedance: 50 O
Temperature: -10 C to +55 C
Connector: R/P SMA PLUG
Cable: ULA168,L = 3M

Indoor Test

For this test, my La Fonera was inside the house, near the opposite corner from the porch where my laptop was placed. It hung 6 feet (just under 2 meters) above the floor. The house is wood-frame, and the only obstacle of any note is the stove in the kitchen, which may cause a slight Fresnel Effect on the wifi signal. The signal passed through my bedroom door, the central wall, and the kitchen window behind my seat on the porch.

In the NetStumbler screen shots below, the “A” section is the signal using La Fonera’s stock 3-4db antenna, “B” is the stock antenna enchanced with a single “Windsurfer” reflector, like I have blogged about before, and “C” is using La Fontenna.

The signal seemed strong at first, then dropped 8db for some reason. This also occurred with my neighbor’s wifi signal on the same channel at the same time. I was unable to convince La Fonera to change channels (my Linksys was unaffected on ch 6), and subsequent tests showed even poorer reception. My guess is that something nearby had cooincidently just begun to generate interference, and continued until I was out of time to perform new tests.

The result is that indoors, La Fontenna performs somewhat better than the stock dipole antenna, but only slightly better than the reflector, and seems to suffer more “dropouts”.

Outdoor Test

There is an empty lot across from my house, and since I use an electric mower and trimmer, I chose to run an extension cord across the street and all the way to the rear of the property. This was about 120 feet (36 meters). The La Fonera and La Fontenna were suspended 8 feet (2.5 meters) in the air, in direct line-of-sight of my laptop.

I performed the same three tests. The result is that outdoors, La Fontenna performs noticably better than the stock dipole antenna, but worse than the reflector, and also suffered more dropouts.

Conclusion

I was sincerely disappointed in the results I got. Either I have a defective Fontenna, or there is considerably more than .5db of loss in that 3 meter antenna lead!

Perhaps La Fontenna was worth $7 to me, since I was looking forward to performing these geeky tests, and blogging about it for other’s benefeit. But it performed only marginally better than the Windsurfer reflector I built, which cost me nothing at all. I honestly would not recommend paying $19.95 (plus $5 shipping) for it, but I might pay an extra $2 for it with the purchase of a new La Fonera, as offered in Fon’s Shop, in case it solves some kind of installation problem.

I urge Fon to retire this flaccid device, and instead offer a $19.95 kit comprising a waterproof case to mount the La Fonera into, with an embedded flat-panel antenna on a *short* cable, and a built-in Power over Ethernet (PoE) adapter, so that La Fonera’s 5v DC and network connection can be sent together down a long Ethernet cable. We can buy 100 foot Ethernet cables here for the same price as La Fontenna, which is both cheaper and more flexible than 100 feet of antenna cable. With such a kit, we would not need to worry about running AC power to within 3m of the access point, and where to stash the AC/DC adapter.

If anyone would like to discuss my tests, or even suggest some additional ones, please comment below! ;)

Addition: Check out Marshall’s blog for a La Fontenna unboxing!


La Fontenna is Now Shipping [UPDATED]

June 5, 2007

UPDATE: The Fontenna is not yet available in the Fon Shop, but is being offered in advance via promotional codes to specific Foneros. Read on for more details, and see technical specs added at the end:

Fon’s own signal range-booster, the “La Fontenna”, is being offered to Foneros in a handful of countries begining today. Promoted by Fon President Martin Varsavsky as a superior alternative to mesh network technology, this rectangular plastic enclosure has a cable 3 meters in length, and can be placed up high, or on a window for improved coverage.

We don’t have word from anyone who has recieved one yet, but what is likely inside is an etched-PCB antenna like this:

Varsavsky describes the range boost to be an additional several hundred feet, to almost 1.5 miles!

Some unanswered questions remain, about how much signal loss results from the long pigtail cable, and what radiation pattern this antenna will create. Varsavsky omits the fact that the resulting hotspot will be shaped more like a focused beam, and not a circular hotspot like the original omnidirectional antenna creates. In order to establish a wifi connection from 1.5 miles, one probably needs a similar high-gain antenna pointing directly back at the AP, and to be positioned somewhere along the beam itself.

Free Fontennas

As discussed in Fon’s English-language discussion board, if you purchased a La Fonera at full price and have attracted 3 or more other Foneros (Aliens ) to connect to it (or purchase through it ), you may have allready recieved an email from Fon with a promotional code good for a free Fontenna. Shipping is free in select countries.

Please give us your comments if you aquire one of these Fontennas, and tell us how well it performs for you!

Fon has built a web page describing the merits of the La Fontenna. Click below to read on:

Technical specifications:
Frequency Range: 2400 MHz 2500 MHz
Antenna gain-without cable: 7 dBi
Antenna gain-with cable: 6.5 dBi
VSWR 2.0: 1 Max.
Polarization: Linear, vertical
Impedance: 50 O
Temperature: -10 C to +55 C
Connector: R/P SMA PLUG
Cable: ULA168,L = 3M


Wifi Reflections [1 EDIT]

May 22, 2007

I’ve been playing around with a pair of 6-inch parabolic reflectors, based on the “Windsurfer” design found here at Freeantennas.com, and thought i’d share my luck so far. I have my trusty Linksys WRT54GL router inside the house, and myself positioned about 40 (12m) away, on the front porch. I use DD-WRT, so I have boosted the transmitter’s power output to 125mW. The house is all wood-frame construction with no obstacles other than a metal gas stove in the line of sight. I use an Orinoco Gold A/B/G PCMCIA wifi card, which has a reputation for reasonably accurate strength readings when using NetStumbler.

Click the photo for a large version:

At first, I just ran NetStumbler with the parabolic dishes both pointed toward my computer. I get about -63db, which is an excellent signal. Second, I turned both dishes in the opposite direction. The signal plunges to about -78db. Third, I took the parabolic reflectors off to see the signal I get without assistance. This is around -68db which is fair to excellent, but it experiences occasional complete dropouts. I rarely get these dropouts now that i’m using the reflectors. :)

Here’s a Shockwave Video tutorial on building the Windsurfer. For my own reflectors, I used tape, cardstock paper and an Exacto knife, and got neater looking results. When you’re done, your router should resemble K-9 s head.

There were some very interesting pictures on Freeantennas.com that you might be interested in seeing: Deep Dish Cylindrical Parabolic Template and Lots More Pictures.

An excellent parabolic reflector design is also provided by fellow Fonero Kyros (.pdf format). While the Windsurfer design states that the template can be scaled up proportionately, Kyros argues otherwise.

Since my 6 reflectors are delivering less of a boost than the notes on the Windsurfer template suggest, i’m going to take my chances and build a pair at double size.

EDIT: I made reflectors at 150% the scale of the small ones (about 10 ). They’re so big that they can’t both point in the same direction without overlapping a bit. While the new reflectors are still better than none, the smaller reflectors outperform them by about -5db. Can anyone offer advice about what “sweet sizes” these reflectors should be built at? If they can’t be scaled up proportionately, then what is the next larger size I should construct at?


Harvard Combines WiFi + Weather Monitoring

May 12, 2007

Harvard University and BBN Technologies are installing 100 sensors throughout Cambridge on a streetlight-mounted wireless network. The sensors will be in place by 2011 to monitor weather conditions and pollution in real-time. The sensors will draw their power from municipal electricity supplied to the lights, and are based on Linux running on some sort of embedded PC.

Read the article HERE.

This sounds a lot like meshed wifi APs built out of devices like certain Linksys, Buffalo, Meraki Mini and other routers. I’ve written about this in the past, in the context of ways Fon could have attracted interest in municipalities to use their devices for metro wifi. Such devices would have a spare Ethernet, serial or USB interface to attach an instrument package, and would aquire power from an induction clamp placed on suitable nearby lines (streetlights, overhead lines). The Internet or network connection would either be some kind of meshing scheme, or perhaps even Ethernet over Power Lines. Installation would take minutes.

The instrument packages would appeal to utilities, law enforcement and city planners alike. Some could couple with gas, electric and water meters to monitor resource useage in real-time. Sudden increases in demand could be investigated immediately, to find burst pipes before severe damage occurrs. The system could be two-way and allow the city to avoid brownouts by adjusting thermostats, or perhaps a homeowner can warm the house up remotely when leaving work for the day.

Law enforcement could attach gunshot detecting microphones (which I advocate) and remote cameras (which i’m actually not enthusiastic about) to help establish the locations of suspicious activity quickly. Homeowners could attach their private security systems, to watch their homes, or keep an eye on grandma, while away. Cameras are so cheap these days, there is no reason that private citizens can’t overtake law enforcement and watch the watchers for a change. Let us hope governments don’t pass new laws to “protect” us from these freedoms.

City planners can keep track of data on ozone and other pollutants, including noise levels. Weather agencies can benefeit from high-resolution maps of temperature, humidity, pressure and wind speed measurements across the city.

While this particular network in Cambridge will only be for these 100 instrument packages, they may provide public hotspots in the future.

I recall a study I read about 10 years ago where it was determined that if the utility companies actually paid to install fiber optic cables directly to each home, to connect to the meters and read them remotely, they would break even some 3-6 years later just by eliminating the expense of manual meter reading. The study noted that the cables would be almost entirely idle, and could provide additional revenue by providing Internet service to customers. This potential revenue was not included in the study’s break-even point, but would obviously have paid for it much sooner.

The main problem was that noone in management was willing to propose, let alone commit, their company to a project that would place them in debt for any number of years. It is perhaps due to this typical corporate nearsightedness, that everyone in the USA doesn’t allready have fast FiOS Internet connections. While it may not be necessary for utilities to actually install FiOS in order to do something similar today, one wonders why with high-speed internet and wifi available just about everywhere now (heck, standard phone lines for dialup connections would be enough – most home security systems use them), they don’t install a $20 device to replace everyone’s meters and save billions of dollars