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Into the woods with VoIP

The Marine Biological Laboratory cabins on Cape Cod have no heat or local phone service -- but now the scientists in residence have VoIP.

Adjacent to cedar swamps, deep in the woods and three miles from the Marine Biological Laboratory's primary research campus in Woods Hole, Mass., are 76 cottages used by the summer scientists and their families.

These rustic cabins, built in the 1940s, have no heat or air conditioning, no washers or dryers and no phone service. This summer the 21st century came to the cottages, bringing microwaves and wireless Voice over Internet Protocol -- one of the few installations of its kind in New England, and a first for domestic residences.

"This was a giant task accomplished in less than five months. Some major tweaking still needs to be done, but all in all it has been remarkable," said Catherine Norton, CIO at the MBL.

In the past, residents who wanted phone service in the cabins had to make arrangements with a local provider.

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"By the time it would take Verizon or Adelphi to set up a phone for an individual resident, weeks would pass only to have to turn it off again after their four- to 10-week stay," said Robert Loyot, network manager for the MBL. "Very cost-ineffective, lots of management involved."

Nonetheless residents need phones.

With the advent of cellular service, MBL considered dispensing with developing a land line phone service altogether and let tenants get by with cell phones. Problem was, many of the cottages are down in a hole and service was spotty at best. Residents could be seen walking up hills to talk. "That was strike two," Loyot said.

The third fact that drove the MBL to make a big change was computers.

"The computers were driving it harder than the phones. People want their Internet service, for their families, for themselves. We've become so dependent on e-mail, we just can't live without it," Loyot said. "We chose to solve both phone and Net problems in a single stroke. We needed to get telephone service that was cost-effective and we needed to get some data out there as well."

The MBL decided to leverage its "sisterly relationship" with the other research powerhouse in town, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which provides the MBL campus with Internet service through its fiber optic cable. One of WHOI's campuses was close to the cottages. Moreover, WHOI had plans to run additional fiber optic cable to create a redundant path to make Woods Hole more hurricane-proof. To do that, it would have to cross MBL property.

"The brains started ticktocking. You guys need to a right of way, which we are happy to give you. We need connectivity for these cottages. Why not create a new fiber optic cable loop from WHOI's nearby Quissett campus to the cottages and back to the MBL main campus," Loyot said.

Costs, jitters and latency

The MBL still had a problem: It couldn't afford to run fiber optic cable to 76 cottages clustered in two separate enclaves. "That's a whole lot of infrastructure. And then these cottages are only used three months a year," Loyot said.

Instead, MBL got WHOI to lay the fiber to an MBL field house close to the cottages. MBL put up a telephone pole in each of the two residential circles and used a system from Motorola, called Canopy. It is a 9 MHz broadcast system, also known as a wide area wireless network. MBL put a data switch in each pole, and installed the radio equipment. Each cottage got a satellite dish. "Now we send both voice and data from this antenna array on top of these poles to all the cottages," Loyot said. A short piece of fiber connects the poles to the MBL field house.

MBL could have put an analog phone in each of the cottages, converted the signal to digital, sent it wirelessly to its main campus and then reconverted it to analog, Loyot said, but the research center decided VoIP is the emerging technology. MBL enabled its campus Avaya phone system to handle VoIP. The cottage Avaya VoIP phones "feel like" extensions on MBL's campus.

"But the real magic is that the phone call that starts in the cottage, goes wireless over this Canopy system, gets converted from radio to a wired signal and runs through this long fiber optic cable to our institution and into our phone switch. It's definitely a new deployment," Loyot said.

The magic has its dark side.

One problem was that the radio connectivity between the poles and the antenna was not strong enough. "My guys had to climb up ladders with laptops and signal detectors and move antennas around to tune them. There are also a lot of settings in the software. The team has really had to learn the software," Loyot said.

VoIP's two well-known problems -- jitter and latency -- disturb phone calls. If data packets are delayed, bits of the conversation "drop out." To correct this, MBL is upgrading the system to segregate the phone data and give it priority over the computer data. Canopy directs the encrypted data through the dedicated path, which is handed over to the MBLs' main switching system from Enterasys, which in turn has its own quality of service (QoS). Other firmware improvements are under way.

"We're literally running three QoS's to make the system work," he said. In addition to Avaya and Enterasys, vendors include Community WISP, a Concord, Mass., wireless Internet solutions provider, and Blue Spruce Technologies of Greenland, N.H.

And the benefits?

MBL invested roughly $150,000 to get the system up and running. The phones are in the cottages for perpetuity. The cost for local phone calls is covered by the cottage fees, and MBL already pays WHOI for Internet service. "It makes no difference if we add 75 users, whereas year after year, we would be paying Verizon or Adelphia to light up those phones," Loyot said.

While there has been some grumbling from residents as MBL has worked out the glitches, he said the VoIP certainly provides more value to its tech-savvy residents. "When it's working correctly each cottage should realize roughly 1.1 Mbps, which is better than DSL."

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