Building an outdoor wireless LAN for a roving worksite

The crew of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition built a new Wi-Fi network with outdoor wireless access points. It travels with them across the country.

Greg Mugh, technical director for ABC's popular television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, has had to set

up, break down and relocate his outdoor wireless LAN every couple of weeks for several years. He tried to make it work with consumer-grade Wi-Fi access points, but he soon realized that he needed enterprise-quality outdoor wireless access points and mesh networking.

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition surprises families in need with extremely fast reconstructions of their inadequate houses. After his last consumer-grade access point died while the show worked on a house in Baltimore recently, Mugh decided to look for alternatives. The constant mobility was hard on the consumer devices he had been using. So eventually he selected a set of four outdoor wireless access points from Ruckus Wireless that he uses to build a wireless mesh network, which he can set up and break down quickly at each filming site.

 

The old access points "were put into freight crates and onto trucks, and the plastic casings were just not ideal," Mugh said. "They were also not weatherproof at all. The durability was just not there."

An outdoor wireless LAN up and running inside of a day

Given the nature of the television show, Mugh's challenges went beyond durability. He arrives at each site with very little opportunity to assess it for a wireless network.

"I never know from site to site what I'm going to be dealing with -- trees, houses, hills," he said. "We have to surprise the families. That's our thing. We can only preplan to the point of knowing where the site is. But we can't set up any infrastructure beforehand. As soon as the first trailer hits the ground, I have active users waiting for service. They will literally show up and say, 'When will we get Internet today?'"

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Depending on the size of the construction site, Mugh has anywhere from 50 to 200 users who need network access. This includes the production and creative teams who send video footage and communications back and forth with ABC's offices in Los Angeles and the construction crews and teamsters who need email and Internet access for basic communications to order parts and download technical specs for construction materials and household appliances.

"Some of our truck drivers are on the road a lot. They're lucky if they get a couple days off a month," he said. "I encourage them to video chat with their families when they get a chance. I don't stifle their usage unless they're slowing down my network too much."

A portable, wireless mesh network for a roving construction site

Portability was also a strong consideration for Mugh. Motorola's outdoor wireless access points didn't cut it because they weighed 30 pounds each. Something that heavy is fine for a network that you set up once, but not for one that relocates regularly. Ruckus' ZoneFlex 7762 802.11n outdoor wireless access points weigh a little more than four pounds each.

Going mesh was also critical because running wires to outdoor wireless access points proved to be a disaster. Mugh's consumer-grade equipment required Ethernet cables, which were vulnerable in a hot construction zone.

"I have so much foot traffic and equipment traffic, wires just didn't work," he said. "I was literally on call 24 hours a day just for repairing the stuff after I set it up."

How this wireless mesh network ticks

In Mugh's outdoor mesh networks, one of the Ruckus access points serves as the root access point, directly wired into whatever network connectivity ABC hires for the site -- usually a DSL or cable Internet line. His three other outdoor wireless access points mesh with the root access point. The dual radio access points use the 5 GHz band for the mesh backhaul and the 2.4 GHz band for user access. Mugh also has a ZoneDirector 1006 controller for configuration and management for the network.

The access points sit on 15-foot lighting stands that are typically located near one of the show's RVs, which deliver power to APs. If he has to place the AP too far from one of his RVs, Mugh mounts it on a lighting stand equipped with its own generator.

The set-up provides full-coverage outdoor wireless LAN – one that is currently providing Wi-Fi access across a four-acre farm where the program is replacing an old farmhouse.

"I can throw [the access points] up on the stands and have this whole network up and running in an hour," Mugh said. "I don't have to worry about trailers [running over wires] because the mesh coverage is outstanding. It's an elegant solution."

As is customary with many of the vendors that supply equipment and materials to the show, Ruckus donated half of the outdoor wireless access points to ABC and has agreed to donate 802.11g routers and indoor dual-zone bridges to provide wireless coverage to the families who receive the new homes from the show.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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