How one Vermont company gets you online between rocks and other hard places
Politics in Montpelier are about to heat up. This January, if all goes as planned, the legislative chambers in the Statehouse will become a hotspot. It'll be strictly BYOL -- Bring Your Own Laptop -- but if lawmakers tote computers equipped with wireless Internet receivers to their desks, they'll have high-speed broadband Web access via a wireless signal known as wi-fi, short for "wireless fidelity." They'll be able to shoot emails across the aisles, download music or, perhaps more importantly, instantly fact-check their opponents' proposals.
Bringing broadband Internet service into the legislative chambers might seem like a no-brainer -- don't most office workers have Internet access at their desks? -- but it's more difficult than it might seem. The Statehouse, after all, is a historic building. It currently supports fewer than two dozen Internet-ready terminals for legislators' use, and rewiring the building with more bulky ethernet cables is out of the question. Wi-fi networks are also notoriously finicky. All sorts of variables -- from microwaves to lead walls to sound vibrations -- can affect the strength and reliability of reception.
That's why Montpeliernet, the nonprofit group sponsoring the network, turned to Williston-based Summit Technologies to get the job done. Summit is not the only wireless deployment firm in Vermont, but it has a national reputation for handling challenging, "mission critical" projects.
The phrase, says CEO Al Levy, refers to networks that can't be allowed to fail. Summit has set them up all over the country, from an office building in Boise, Idaho, to hospitals in Florida to the Albany airport. Installing a 5-by-4-foot panel antenna under the cupola in the Statehouse -- which will receive a signal from a new point-to-multipoint wireless transmitter atop Montpelier's National Life Building -- is actually easier than most of what they do.
Levy explains that when you have a wired Internet connection, you can see exactly where it's coming from. What makes their job so tricky is trying to predict how these invisible wireless signals interact with the variables in such a dynamic environment. "We consider it a kind of black art," he says, only half-joking.
If deploying wi-fi networks is an art, then Summit's artist-in-residence is Chief Technology Officer Johannes Jobst. The 43-year-old Austria native looks a little like actor Liam Neeson, only shorter. And yes, his accent bears a slight resemblance to Ahnold's. But Jobst is not a power broker or a Hollywood slick -- when he arrives in Summit's small, strip-mall office one morning for an interview, he's wearing his collared shirt tucked into tan construction-worker pants. Jobst is a ham radio operator and a volunteer firefighter. He likes to tinker, and he's not afraid to get his hands dirty.
Jobst's office still has that not-quite-moved-in feel; Summit relocated to a larger office in Williston from Maple Street in Burlington this fall. In one corner are piled his 7- and 9-year-old sons' toy, including several radio-controlled cars. On a rickety metal shelf just inside his door sits a collection of obsolete devices: old Smith Corona typewriters, the earliest Mac, an online banking machine that plugs into a phone. Then there's his desk -- a high-tech command center.
When Jobst sinks into his chair, he faces not one, not two, but three full-size computer screens, one of which is attached to an open laptop. A fourth, smaller screen belongs to a hand-held PDA plugged into a dock on the end of his desk.
When he powers up his PC, he reveals a desktop backdrop of his Jericho home on a snowy afternoon. The photo on the 21-inch monitor is nearly obscured by at least 100 icons. "It's crazy, isn't it?" he concedes gleefully. "But I know what they all are. And most of them I really do use all the time."
But for technophobes who are turned off by all the newfangled gear and jargon, Jobst has a little secret. The wi-fi networks he creates are actually based on an older technology, one that we've all been using for years -- radio. That fancy wireless card in your laptop? It's a radio transmitter and receiver.
Jobst calls wi-fi "a special radio signal" you can't hear. The frequency, which operates at 2.4 gigahertz, was developed by the U.S. military and later adapted for civilian use. It started to catch on as an Internet delivery tool in the past few years, when the industry agreed on it as a standard, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers certified it as IEEE 802.11b.
Jobst is, essentially, a radio head. His circuitous path to becoming a Web maven began with a love for CB radios when he was a kid in Austria. He held a variety of different jobs -- as an insurance salesman, and, like Summit's Chief Operations Officer Keith Mattes, a ski instructor -- before returning to college to earn a degree in microelectronic engineering. Long before wireless Internet, his school of choice was Salzburg's Wirtschaftsförderungsinstitut -- a.k.a. WIFI Salzburg.
Jobst's radio background was what attracted Levy and Mattes. When Mattes started Summit 12 years ago, it was a different kind of outfit, doing network integration for companies and selling computer hardware. Levy folded his own tech company into the operation in 2001. But Summit's business slowed when the tech bubble burst. At around that same time they met Jobst, and decided to specialize in wireless.
Jobst moved to the States 13 years ago with his wife, a New York native who graduated from UVM. He was running his own company when Mattes and Levy recruited him. "You're just not going to get that radio knowledge overnight," says Mattes. "Johannes had a lifetime of experience that was going to give us an edge."
When Jobst describes particularly challenging installations he's tackled, he sounds more like a painter or a master chef than a dispassionate Web geek. Talking about the high-density network he installed for financial giant Capital One in a Richmond, Virginia, office building last week -- Summit deploys all of Capital One's wireless networks -- he compares the job to laying tiles in a floor mosaic. When you look at one piece at a time, all you see is one tile. But step back and you're wowed by the larger view. "We had that larger view for the first time Wednesday," he says, "and it was absolutely awesome. It's exactly what I imagined it would be. Perfect."
During one interview with all three Summit chiefs, Levy and Mattes asked Jobst to explain an experiment he'd run in downtown Schenectady to see how far a roof-mounted wi-fi antenna could carry a signal. Jobst outfitted two bikes with laptops and GPS receivers, then sent riders out to test its range. "He created the software it took to collect the data, and developed the methodology of the study," Levy says.
Jobst tracked the riders from a command post he'd set up in a horse trailer. To get a signal in the trailer, he needed to be in the line of sight of the 5.1 GHz point-to-multipoint antenna on top of a nearby building. But he couldn't see the antenna because he was parked in a narrow alley. So Jobst pointed both antennas at a window on another building, and bounced the signal off the glass. The strategy worked. "He has a kind of sixth sense," Levy says. "He's a bit of a MacGyver."
When Jobst installs a wi-fi network, he first figures out what the client wants with it and where they need it. Then he and some of Summit's 13 other employees do a site survey to assess topological and environmental obstacles. To surmount these problems, he chooses from among a variety of antennas and receiver/transmitters that disperse the Internet signal -- known as routers -- that Summit purchases from hardware vendors. Jobst places these in various locations to cover the service area, taking into account how their signals will interact.
This is where the creativity comes in. When a wireless router sends out data, if some of the information is lost in transit -- let's say you're sitting in an outdoor courtyard, and the wind blows leaves on the trees, somehow disrupting the signal you're receiving -- the router will get an incomplete confirmation from your computer. It will resend the data until it works.
Sounds great. But if you're in range of multiple routers, all these echoes can bounce around crazily and shut the system down. Or they will, as Jobst likes to say, "bring it to a grinding halt." That poses a serious danger to a mission-critical system like the one at the Albany medical center, which will enable doctors and nurses to communicate via voice transmitters pinned to their collars. Summit is developing a network that will link 23 buildings -- housing various signal-disrupting medical equipment -- with 1000 routers covering 2.5 million square feet.
To make a network like this work, Jobst must adjust the power on the routers, and use a $40,000 spectrum analyzer to measure the strength of the signals and figure out how they're reacting in a specific environment. He says some companies don't even use spectrum analyzers, an oversight he doesn't understand. "They don't think of it the right way," he suggests. "They just put stuff up. The bad thing about it is, 70 to 75 percent of the time, it works."
And when it doesn't, he says, people get frustrated and blame the technology. Levy estimates that half of Summit's business comes from companies who need to fix failed installations. Jobst proudly points out that he guarantees his work. This is probably one reason why Summit doesn't have to advertise. They make most of their annual $2 million and change through word of mouth, and from the company website, http://www.summitwireless.biz .
Clients they've attracted include aluminum giant Alcoa, which hired them to install a wireless network in its Pennsylvania plasma plant. Jobst had to design a system that would work in the presence of Alcoa's 1000-plus alumina-melting plasma ovens. Each oven is as big as a railroad car and humming with enough electricity to vaporize anyone who touches it while also touching the ground.
And the plant is so highly magnetized that workers don't need toolboxes -- their wrenches stick to the tailgates of the pickups they drive around the site. Magnetic fields can disrupt wi-fi. Even the noise produced by aluminum rods clanging together factored into the equation. To top it all off, Jobst had to wear a respirator the whole time to avoid inhaling poisonous gas. "That was a fun trip," he says. He's serious. He likes the challenge.
That wouldn't surprise Tony Elliot, co-founder and CEO of Vermont-owned Internet service provider SoverNet. Elliot is working with Summit on the Montpelier project, which will eventually provide wireless Internet service to several municipal buildings and public hotspots. He says Jobst and the Summit crew are indeed creative. "They're great folks," he says, "and they're not afraid to try new things."
Not all of Summit's contracts are that exciting. The company installed a fairly simple set-up at the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes last year. Co-owner Penny Beach says she felt Jobst really understood her property. And, she notes appreciatively, "they were able to make it really easy for us."
Beach describes herself as "not the most tech-savvy person," a description that likely fits most Vermonters. But increasingly, firms like Summit and specialists like Jobst are connecting even rural residents -- and old-fangled facilities like the Statehouse -- to 21st-century wireless technology.