Spending Money

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Construction workers, architects and others working on the $4 billion redevelopment of the former Denver airport needed a better way to communicate. A wireless network made the difference.

Spending Money

Forest City was "spending a lot of money to obtain wiring for data and phone at their construction trailers," says Knasel, Baker's chief technology strategist since construction started on the first piece of the project, a retail complex near the former main entrance of the airport.

In building the retail center, Forest City spent around $50,000 for temporary communication facilities. Then, when trailers were needed for building homes, it allocated $40,000 on additional links. The company also devoted more than $30,000 just chasing down Qwest to get rewiring done as construction trailers started to move.

Knasel looked for ways to cut costs. He had worked with an Atlanta equipment integrator so he was familiar with how voice calls could be carried over the Internet. He also knew wireless technology had matured to the point that reaching trailers with high-speed frequencies was practical. Network performance, he says, increased dramatically while costs dropped and security improved.

In August 2002, Knasel proposed to Baker a wireless network that would hook construction trailers into the broadband communications network already being laid underground as part of the "future-proofing" and marketing of homes, offices and retail space. Broadband would give contractors all the capacity they would need to ship not just words and numbers, but video files and diagrams. Those could then be used to explain how to fix problems such as how to upgrade wiring in office buildings for tenants wanting highly sophisticated security.

The wireless network would cost no more than $50,000 for basic equipment, Knasel estimated, and the economies of a one-time expenditure seemed obvious. But Baker also had another incentive in mind.

"I had been in Starbucks and I had seen what they were doing with a wireless portal that allowed customers to link up with their PDAs and their laptops. It dawned on me that we might be able to offer that to residents on a broader scale," Baker says. "Imagine sitting in the new parks with your laptop, linked to the world."

Baker became convinced after he and Knasel began talking to wireless-networking companies, and picked Milestone Networks of Parker, Colo., to handle deployment.

They quickly realized they could make effective use of a structure left over from Stapleton's days as an airport: its air-traffic control tower.

"You can see all the way to Kansas from up there," says Joel Kappes, co-owner of Milestone. The tower would make an excellent generation-and-transfer point for wireless signals throughout the development.

Under the watchful eyes of Forest City's owners, Colorado public officials and contractors of all varieties, Baker and Knasel launched the wireless initiative.

Choosing Milestone was the lengthiest part of the process. Baker and Knasel had to be sure that Milestone had the acumen to work with so many different parties. Qwest, the local telephone company, was more interested in laying communications lines to service hundreds of homes than tacking up temporary connections for contractors.

"Services to construction sites are not high on their list," Knasel says. "And there is a high cost for them to turn a customer on for a few months, a high transaction cost.''

It's also a lot trickier to serve a construction trailer than a residence.

Currently, there are six trailers—three for the general contractor and another three for builders at the Stapleton site, though the total could climb as high as 25 over the next two years. The technological content inside most of these 12' x 60' structures includes phones, fax machines, laptop computers and synching cradles for handheld information devices. There are even electronic "whiteboards" that allow users in separate locations to look at diagrams and blueprints and mark changes on them while, elsewhere, others watch.

Understanding this and providing adequate bandwidth— wired or unwired—weren't the only hurdles.

Two months into the project, they stumbled over several wireless networks operating on the same frequency Forest City employed.

"It was a 802.11b frequency-interference problem," says Knasel. This is the commonplace "Wi-Fi" technology employed by home wireless networks, as well as Starbucks coffee shops and public spaces, such as Bryant Park in New York City. All the wireless usage was taking place in the frequency known as 2.4 gigahertz, where signals cycle 2.4 billion times a second.

"We started to experience periodic disruption,'' says Knasel. The response: Upgrade the equipment at an added cost of just under $20,000. The new equipment operates at 5 gigahertz. The problem disappeared.

This article was originally published on 2003-11-01
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