AirMagnet breaks new ground in wireless spectrum analysis

Everyone needs a Wi-Fi spectrum analyzer, but there are times when analyzing cellular spectrum is also essential. Fluke Networks' new AirMagnet Spectrum ES provides a broad range of capability at a very attractive price.Spectral analysis, a longstanding fixture in electronics and manufacturing test, and, more recently as a valuable tool for understanding coverage, interference, and other elements of Wi-Fi, is the art and science of extracting meaning and insight from wireless systems at Layer 1 -- radio waves.

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A spectrum analyzer tool examines this energy, reporting frequency, amplitude, and, depending upon mission and implementation, a host of additional information invaluable to troubleshooting and performance analysis.

This functionality is often required by technicians working with and for the cellular carriers to verify the performance of femtocells, picocells, and microcells (all of these are installed indoors), understand coverage issues with distributed antenna systems (DAS), check in-building cellular penetration, and even look at co-channel and adjacent channel interference, including potential intentional jammers.

These spectrum analyzers, however, have historically been highly specialized and typically cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But with the introduction of the Fluke Networks AirMagnet Spectrum ES, anyone requiring spectral analysis from 698 to 2690 MHz. can have a very comprehensive, yet highly useable tool, at a very reasonable price.

The product itself is packaged as a USB adapter with an associated external antenna that is about as big as the USB adapter itself. A USB extension cable and Velcro strips are included for mounting both on a Windows-based PC -- we used a Lenovo S210 Touch notebook running Windows 8.1. Installation is mostly easy --  a product ID, serial number, and security key data must be entered at AirMagnet's support site.

The product can then be downloaded, but all of the above information must be entered again during setup. Other than that minor irritation, getting up and running is straightforward -- plan on about 15 minutes to complete the process. The User Guide and Release Notes are up to AirMagnet's usual high standards, both very informative and easy to follow.

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Upon launching the application (we used version 1.0.2), the user is presented with a Project Wizard that allows you to select specific parameters related to analyzing by technology (GSM, UMTS, LTE, etc.), by carrier (a database of carriers is included; just select your location, and it's even possible to zoom in on specific carrier frequency blocks), just the 900 MHz. band, all bands, or a custom configuration.

Spectral data is displayed in a number of user-selectable formats; FFT and spectrogram will be familiar to anyone with a background in spectral analysis, and are usually good places to start regardless. But the program is very easy to use overall and encourages exploration. There's even an Interferer/Device Locator function that's analogous to this capability found in many Wi-Fi spectrum analyzers.

Clever readers have already noticed that the 900-MHz. unlicensed band is within the useful range of Spectrum ES. While long ago abandoned for WLAN use, this band is seeing renewed interest from the machine-to-machine crowd, so we suspect that many will purchase Spectrum ES just for this capability.

There's also coverage of the 2.4 GHz. band, but the services provided are nowhere near as comprehensive as what's in AirMagnet's own Spectrum XT product. There is, in fact, a button in Spectrum ES to switch to Spectrum XT, but we didn't test this as Spectrum XT is not, as of this writing, fully operational on Windows 8.1.

One additional interesting application is to connect the USB device (via an attenuator, of course) directly to the antenna cable of a DAS or microcell for precise measurements of transmitter output. This specialized activity should, of course, be limited to qualified personnel, but it's nice to have this option for that very significant audience. A Power Meter screen, ideal for this specific function, is also included.

The only real caution we noticed is that the screen update rate can be as slow as several seconds; this really isn't surprising given the amount of data and processing involved, and not unlike the case with enterprise-grade Wi-Fi analyzers.

So, no, Spectrum ES isn't as good as a $50,000 spectrum analyzer, but it's more than useful as a field tool where ease-of-use and portability are key.

AirMagnet Spectrum ES lists for $5,995, but deals are available on the Web. Overall, Spectrum ES is a real bargain for anyone involved in the analysis, troubleshooting, and verification of cellular performance at carriers and a broad range of other venues and applications, and will very likely find its way into the toolboxes of installers, technicians, and even product developers over the next few years.

Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.

Tags NetworkingwirelessWireless Managementanti-malware

More about AirMagnetAshlandDASFarpoint GroupFlukeFluke NetworksLenovoUMTS

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