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Case Study: WiMax makes scientific history

Connects the repository of the Science Museum

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One of the world's largest collections of historical science and technology objects, the UK's Science Museum has so many objects in its collection, that several thousand of them must be housed in an abandoned airfield at Wroughton in rural Wiltshire.

The vast hangars resemble the warehouse where the Holy Grail ends up in Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Most visitors find a holy grail of some sort," says the site's head of development, Sally Pettipher, whether it's a coking plant, a tubular knitting machine, or an early Honeywell mainframe.

Until recently, communications on the site have been as antiquated as the amphibious cars and airplanes in the unheated hangars. There's no mobile phone coverage, let alone a wired network, and the staff office is in a building at one corner of the mile-wide site. Any work with the objects had to be done on paper, or involved a lot of driving back and forth across the site.

The Museum needs to update its communication, as it is gearing up for a major expansion on the Wroughton site, which could bring together its repository with those of the Natural History and Victoria & Albert museums. It is also hoping to open much more of its collections to the public.

The Museum looked into running cables to the hangars, or setting up fixed wireless links themselves, but it was all too expensive, says Pettipher.

Luckily for the Museum, Wroughton is only 5km away from Intel's Swindon HQ, and the chip giant has been looking for somewhere to show off its skills at WiMax, the wireless broadband system. Intel has stumped up for a system that uses WiMax to get Wi-Fi access in all the hangars, providing access to the Internet and business applications.

Staff can now carry laptops or tablet PCs and, standing right by the museum's objects, refer to and update the Museum's catalogue, research online, and communicate with colleagues. The system even solves the problem of poor mobile coverage: Skype and a Bluetooth headset gives them a cheap telephone service in any building on the site.

The application is not commercial, of course, but it is a good illustration of what can be done with WiMax. One base station at Intel HQ communicates with antennas on the roof of each hangar. These are linked by Ethernet to Wi-Fi access points on the inside of the ceiling - up to six for each hangar. "This is overkill, but there's a lot of metal in the objects," says Pettipher.

The system uses the 3.4GHz spectrum that is currently licensed to PCCW, the elusive Hong Kong telecoms provider that won a monopoly in Ofcom's botched 3.4GHz auctions of 2003. To use it, Intel got permission from PCCW, and a waiver from Ofcom to experiment with unlicensed equipment.

Eventually, WiMax will use a range of frequencies, within the complicated picture of the UK's radio spectrum, with much of it likely to happen at 5.8GHz, which has a "light licence" scheme at £1 per site.

It offers something like 50Mbit/s over five mile radius, and over much longer distances where a line of sight connection can be made between two masts.

This bandwidth is plenty for the museum's staff. They can use any Wi-Fi equipped PC, but are likely to favour tablets, which can be easily toted round the hangars, with Bluetooth headsets. At a demonstration in Wroughton, Techworld saw a Skype call made to a mobile phone which - luckily - was able to find some coverage. The call was interesting in that it therefore used all the major wireless standards in one go: Bluetooth from the headset to the tablet, Wi-Fi from the tablet to the roof, WiMax for the uplink to the Internet, and GSM for the link back to a phone about 2m away.

Wireless networking is likely to play a large part in the museum's expansion, with the possible addition of RFID tags on the objects, said Pettipher, which would add one more wireless technology and neatly illustrate a prediction made by Ga

Keene predicts that this kind of application will become widespread if vendors like Alvarion, which uses Intel chips, can bring the price of end-user equipment down quickly enough. If they fail to do this, WiMax may be eclipsed by HSDPA, which promises to offer similar bandwidth by upgrading the 3G networks.

At the moment, the museum is a showcase, but if Intel's plans come to fruition, the network it has it could become standard fare for anyone who can't get a wired link.




Fleet Street's last printing press: The 1934 Wood Press, from Northcliffe House, the only surviving press from London's Fleet Street, dominates a hangar at the Science Museum's Wroughton site. Photo courtesy of the Science Museum


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