An urban hotspot in Cardiff’s iconic plaza
by Justin Leese, Chief Technology and Operations Officer
For most people, connecting to the internet today is as easy as jumping on a bus or paying for your coffee or lunch at the till. We hardly need to think about keeping our devices in sync as we jump from network to network wherever we are.
But behind the scenes, creating these invisible links is an innovative feat, orchestrated by complex delivery, planning and build teams working hard to keep us up-to-date with the word around us.
These networks are everywhere, yet if you take a moment to think about how they are created, you might be surprised by the amount of effort that goes into keeping you connected, in and around town.
When the Urdd asked us to connect their Urban Games village – for a weekend-long event in Cardiff Bay – we jumped at the chance to power-up the century young movement and its venture into the urban games arena.
We got to work, planning an infrastructure project is nothing new to us – we’re building a network across south Wales, so mapping out complex networks is in our DNA.
Our first challenge was getting a 10 Gigabit fibre connection to Cardiff Bay’s iconic Roald Dahl Plass, a public plaza a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. We call this our “backhaul” network – think about it like the underground pipes that bring the water to your kitchen tap at home; you don’t need to see them to know they are there.
Fortunately, Ogi already has a link on the edge of the basin, on Bute Street, some 250m off of the plaza. Through partnerships, providers like Ogi have access to underground channels (we call ducts), that help our fibre optic cables move seamlessly under- and sometimes over ground. Passive Infrastructure Access (PIA) is available across the country and helps providers share resources to avoid unnecessarily digging up roads and pavements. Despite there being PIA capacity in the area, getting into the plaza itself would involve nine different landowners – a permissions conversation that would have taken us much longer than the weeks we had to get this installed.
So we needed a Plan B.
Again, nothing new to us, as planning for different scenarios is part of our day-to-day work. So as soon as Plan A was a no-no, we moved on, working with the Wales Millennium Centre to feed our cables through the building – acting as a chamber for our ultrafast network. It probably would have ended up being the best-looking Broadband Exchange, well, ever! Unfortunately, this wasn’t easy and as time was against us we needed another plan.
So back at the drawing board, we started looking at Plan C – getting the best connection we could to the end roadside opposite the plaza, before beaming the signal across the road using a radio link.
Plan in hand, we went from pillar to post trying to find out who owned the roadside land and – perhaps more importantly – if the technology would arrive in time for the event. A nail-biting few weeks later, and we had permission form the Welsh Government to use the roadside land, and our suppliers confirmed the availability of all the equipment we needed to get the job done. Phew – Plan C is GO!
Pulling cable to the edge of Bute Street, our preparation was done, and three days before the event we could start building our network. There’s nothing like a deadline to test your patience or, indeed, that of your team.
Our Network Build team developed a low-level design – like a blueprint for our network – days before the Business Services team began to install temporary masts and Siklu Etherhaul radio transmitters. These units, capable of providing a 10Gbps capacity acted as the final link between our roadside cable and the plaza’s area. A radio link powering a Gigabit-capable WiFi connection for the event’s ambitious plans to livestream, provide free connectivity to guests and enable on-site business to trade. Not all that important then, no?!
Radio links always come with a risk of failing. A lorry driving by or a pigeon flying in the signal’s path could cause a dip in connectivity at any point. So we raised the transmitters as high as possible, making sure they had a clear line of sight to each other as best we could.
With our link in place, we looked to connect the entire site – more than 1280m long – to our Gigabit-capable network. Ogi provides managed WiFi solutions to customers already, so we where fairly confident in the kit we had in front of us. We used the Ruckus T750 set-up – one of the market leaders in WiFi networks, mounting units across the site to ‘bounce’ the network to all parts of the open air event space.
With the event set to welcome hundreds of people, a duty of care to showcase the internet at its best was also paramount to our set up. As part of this temporary network, we enclosed the plaza’s connection with a Fortinet Firewall and filtering set-up, blocking incoming attacks and preventing access to inappropriate content.
I’m pleased to say it went without a hitch. We had capacity to connect more than 1,500 people each day – a huge achievement for a team who, days before, had faced permission, land ownership and other challenges to even get the connection there in the first place.
Speed tests during the busiest times at the event recorded more than 700Mbps download speeds – some eight times the average free WiFi speed regularly available in the area.
Building a network from scratch isn’t easy. We overcame obstacles and challenges to deliver this two-day event network; months in the planning, it took us three days to set up and some three hours to dismantle.
We now have a blueprint for event connectivity, with WiFi average speed around eight times faster than any free outdoor connection you’ll find on Welsh streets today.