Local Government Wi-Fi Turns Challenges into Opportunities
When Trafford Council needed to vacate its town hall temporarily, its IT department linked with Aruba Networks to turn a challenge into an opportunity. With support from its longstanding local IT partner Mavoda, the council was able to do something it had not done before: deploy government-grade wireless networking, and get BYOD and teleworking coverage for staff, councillors and local citizens into the bargain.
“We had a workshop in about 2009 with key staff to identify technologies that could improve our service to both staff and citizens,” explains John Mann, head of infrastructure at Trafford, a metropolitan borough council within England’s Greater Manchester region. “We’d never had wireless at that point – it just hadn’t happened, plus the workforce wasn’t as mobile or agile back then.
“The opportunity was that we had accommodation issues coming up – the town hall was closing for refurbishment, so we wanted an overlay network that we could quickly provision into other spaces. Of course what we’re finding now is an extension of that – people move, and the networks must follow.”
It’s safe to say that our Aruba Wi-Fi has exceeded our expectations.
Tony Kettle, , Network & Communications Manager at Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council
The refurbishment of the town hall and the move to temporary offices permitted the IT team to to check that the need for Wi-Fi was there, which it undoubtedly was. In addition, it enabled them to liaise with the building contractors to ensure that the refurbished building would be well set up for wireless. They also aimed to future-proof the network as much as possible, for instance opting to saturate the new building with Wi-Fi so that when the time comes to add wireless VoIP the capacity will be there.
“One thing we made sure of is coverage,” says Mann. “My advice is don’t just use heat-maps or RF plans – understand the fabric of your building. Going through the process in our temporary accommodation gave us a really good insight into the signal coverage challenges in the new building, so we worked with our contractors to ensure the fabric would be conducive to wireless.”
“With the new town hall, a big selling point for us was agile working,” adds Tony Kettle, Trafford’s network & communications manager. “We used Wi-Fi in a big way tocover the temporary accommodation, plus wired too – both were available everywhere. Now we are back in the town hall, fixed desk workers still use wired, but the others all use wireless.
“Right at the beginning we wanted to prove that the technology worked for us, that it was complementary to wired – it has now become more than a complement. Going around the building I notice how many people are sat at desks, but the cables are not plugged in. The new building has a lot of breakout areas too, and it’s common to see people sitting there with their laptops out.”
When the council put out its tender for a wireless network, its demands were strict. It required a secure separation of public and private networks on the same infrastructure, it had to be scalable and flexible, and of course it had to meet the UK’s Government Secure eXtranet (GSX) code of conduct. “That Aruba was US FIPS-compliant was an extra selling point,” notes Mann.
The Trafford team also knew they needed to make sure that the equipment would work for them, and in the process they were reminded just how important it is to do proper Wi-Fi site surveys using the right tools for the task, not merely a quick walk around with a laptop.
“Before we bought the kit, we told Aruba what we were thinking of and they lent us hardware to test, but we couldn’t get it working properly,” says Kettle. “We were hours away from binning it in frustration, then an Aruba engineer came in with a spectrum analyser and found the problem: the infra-red detectors on the fire alarms also had Wi-Fi, and even though it was not in use it was turned on, so the Wi-Fi access points were constantly being knocked off channels.”
“My advice to anyone undertaking a project like this is always do proper surveys of coverage, connectivity and speed, and set expectations for the business,” adds Mann. “And remember that you also need the right tools and expertise for a proof-of-concept. For example, our network team has its own spectrum analyser now and checks all new sites.”
He continues, “A big part of the tender process is selecting the right partner. We’ve worked with Mavoda since 2009 – they and Aruba seem to have a level of expertise we don’t have in house, they’re always keen to have meetings with us and provide consultancy and information to develop the solution further.“
As well as business-critical secure Wi-Fi, the other big wins from implementing Aruba wireless have been BYOD, both within council properties and off-site – Trafford now has key members of staff and councillors using Aruba Remote Access Points (RAPs) at home. “People like that with RAPs there’s no messing about and no need for VPNs – you just get your laptop out and boot up,” says Mann.
He continues: “Now libraries are telling us they need wireless, like an Internet café. We’re not really seeing a big BYOD uptake at the council, but certainly in libraries people want to use their own devices, not the council’s. So it’s registering, on-boarding and managing those devices, and self-provisioning is very important because our counter staff are busy enough already.
“We are looking next to ClearPass, because self-provisioning is very important. There is a challenge with self-registration though – do you have some sort of validation or qualification? We found the best way of dealing with that was some sort of kiosk where you present your details so we know you are on site, then the library or help-desk staff get an email and as soon as they click ‘approve’ your device is on-board.”
Mann adds that the success of the town hall Wi-Fi and of a pilot installation at the central library has generated more work for the network team, not less. For one thing, they need to resurvey their earliest Wi-Fi sites as they move from coverage focused on specific problem areas towards blanket coverage, and for another they need to make the wireless network more robust.
“It was an overlay network but it has become business critical, so we need some redundancy in the system,” he explains. “Our WAN already has resilience built in up to the back teeth, and now the Wi-Fi seems to be catching that up.” Fortunately, adding resilience is not a problem with Aruba Networks, because its Mobility Controllers can be paired and clustered for fault-tolerance. And while this means that there are still more things to be done, Mann says this is a good sign not a bad one. “We have been the victims of our own success,” he laughs.
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