Wireless technology is meant to be unobtrusive. Now it is literally becoming part of the buildings we inhabit.
Centurion Wireless Technologies Inc., a Lincoln, Neb., antenna manufacturer, has embedded a wireless antenna in a ceiling tile. Companies can use the antenna for their wireless local area networks (wLANs), as well to expand cellular coverage inside buildings.
Centurion partnered with Armstrong World Industries, a Lancaster, Pa.-based floor, ceiling and cabinet manufacturer to create the iCeiling antenna in a ceiling panel. Susan Rhoades, Armstrong's product manager, said a broad range of organizations can use the hidden antenna.
"Work spaces are always being reconfigured," Rhoades said. "You want the interior elements and the technological elements to be flexible. With a drop-in ceiling tile, it is very easy to move the antenna to where you need it."
Tim Scannell, president and principal analyst of the Quincy, Mass., research firm Shoreline Research, said the product's invisibility is also a benefit.
"In a health care environment there is a lot of technology in evidence already, and they may not want to add to that," he said. "In an education environment or a public space, there may be some concern about [wireless access points] being damaged or ripped off."
The Centurion product is a flat antenna that can easily be placed in a standard ceiling tile, unlike other antenna that are round or need to extend upward.
Making the technology invisible
The University of Oregon in Eugene has been building out its wireless network for a decade and has nearly complete campus-wide coverage. Dale Smith, associate director of network services for the university, said that about one-quarter of the campus is covered by Centurion's ceiling tile units.
"We want to make the technology invisible," Smith said. "Access points are big and bulky with blinking lights. We don't want to install them in view of the public."
He said many of the units are in newer buildings such as libraries, where Internet access is important, but so is maintaining an uncluttered environment. But placing a wireless node above a building's ceiling can create its own problems. Smith said if he places the tile in an area that is set aside for the free movement of air, then all of the equipment must meet certain standards concerning the amount of smoke it will emit if burned.
While the iCeiling unit is certified for use in those spaces, Smith has had a hard time finding wireless access points and the related wiring that meet this standard. In the end, he had to design and build his own.
Best suited for a small number of users
As with any antenna, the iCeiling is not appropriate for every situation. Smith said it works best for covering a large area where there are likely to be a small number of users. But it is not the best solution for areas of high-density usage.
For example, Smith said, in one classroom that seats 600 students, he needed to install very focused wLAN antennae so that each node will cover about 10 students and allow students in the lecture hall to get online at the same time. The iCeiling is not the best approach for that, he said since its antenna cannot be focused around such a small area.
Despite problems like those, Smith said the iCeiling has become an important part of his tool kit.
John Helm, vice president of engineering at Netcom International, the Kennesaw, Ga. wireless integrator, agreed that the iCeiling creates new options for the systems he installs. Though many wireless access points come with their own antenna, he said any business must be willing to adapt the technology using different antennae for different situations.
"Over the years, I've come to understand that you can't change the building to conform to your radio," he said. "You've got to design the network based on what the environment dictates to us." The iCeiling, he said, can be an important part of that mix.
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