When I climbed into the SUV in the Las Vegas Convention Center parking lot, Motorola Networks CTO Dan Coombes asked, “Got your laptop? Well, pop it open.” Moto and Intel had set up a demo WiMAX network around the convention center and Las Vegas strip, and they aimed to show it off. But instead of passively watching the typical demo, they invited me to try to push the networks to its limits while they carted me around the city. I love a challenge.
To set up some context, Motorola and Intel were taking a bit of a risk of here. We all know the rules of demos. Half the time they don’t work. Wireless demos are particularly cantankerous–which usually explains the Ethernet cord that snakes out from under the counter. So, to do a live demo in a moving vehicle during rush hour traffic in one of the most congested areas of the U.S. took some chutzpah.
Motorola and Intel have done this kind of thing before. In Chicago at WiMAX World, Motorola rented out a tourist boat and cruised it up and down the Chicago river, running two dozen WiMAX devices at full tilt in the process. There, however, they had a base station every quarter to half mile, each pointing directly at the wide-open murky expanse of the river. There was no way that setup wasn’t going to deliver. In Vegas, though, the situation was a bit more tenuous. Moto decided to set up a temporary network using Clearwire spectrum six weeks before the Consumer Electronics Show, and according to Coombes, they had to rig an awful lot of stuff together at the last moment.
The access points were installed about a mile apart in rough circle around the convention center. There are no 25-story casinos sticking out of the Chicago river, so in Vegas Moto and Intel had to show that MIMO really works. The modem that Moto used was its newly announced MIMO home gateway, a device that really isn’t supposed to be moving around at 40 MPH leaping from sector to sector, Coombes explained. To get it to work, Coombes’ engineers yanked off the MIMO antennas, and taped on two large plastic flanges that looked as if they had been just cut off the Venetian blinds in his hotel room. This contraption along with a Wi-Fi router was mounted behind the backseat, while the rest of the car was packed to the gills with Intel-powered gadgetry all connected to the WiMAX modem through Ethernet cables and Wi-Fi.
My hosts warned there would be dead spots, and dead spots there were. As we passed under the towering steel curtain of the Wynn Hotel–where we stayed trapped for 10 minutes–in gridlock traffic, the Internet radio stream cut off, the onboard navigation system stopped remapping and everyone’s browsers popped up error screens. Meanwhile the WiMAX modem went haywire desparately searching for a signal. But after passing out from under the Wynn’s shadow–and quick reboot of the modem–the network worked impressively.
Admittedly we were one of the only three cars on the network so capacity wasn’t much of an issue, but I did my damndest to overtax the bugger. I simultaneously played YouTube videos on my Wi-Fi enabled phone, previewing songs from the iTunes store on an iPod touch, and downloading the biggest honking files I could find on my laptop. Meanwhile the Internet radio was blaring, the in-car navigator was chirping away and live video feeds from the other vehicles were streaming over a peer-to-peer connection on another computer (Coombes, who I suspect was a bit bored after a full day of reliving same demo, was also checking his e-mail via Outlook). And during all this IP commotion, I managed to navigate my way TelephonyOnline.com without the slightest hiccup.
I figured it was time for a real test, though. YouTube is for bandwidth-challenged sissies. Could the network handle a DVD-quality stream of a feature-length movie? So I went to Netflix’s movie-on-demand page and selected a good three-and-a-half hour long movie for our in-car enjoyment. This may have been a little more than I bargained for. My computer didn’t have the proper software, so Netflix began downloading all 25 MBs of Windows Media Player 11, updated my codecs and made me restart my computer. But as we pulled in to the parking lot of convention center, the opening credits of Les Miserables began playing full-screen on my computer. I admit, I was impressed.