Wireless Mesh Coming of Age

Mesh has quickly morphed from a technology that made in-building WLAN deployment easier to a technology that facilitated deployment of outdoor wireless LANs. A number of vendors are in the

Dave Molta

January 6, 2005

3 Min Read
Network Computing logo

It doesn't have to be this way. At least that's the pitch of an emergingarray of vendors touting wireless mesh technology as a solution to thisand many other problems. Rather than worrying about pulling new cablesor feeling constrained to install APs where cables already exist,mesh-based products use radio links instead of Ethernet connections forinfrastructure backhaul. Fueled by sophisticated, on-the-fly routingcapabilities, wireless mesh systems not only offer wireless backhaul,they also deliver fault tolerance through redundant links.

The Mobile Observer

Sign up today for our weekly newsletter, providing unique, in-depth coverage of mobile technologies.

When this market was in its gestation phase last year, we looked atearly indoor offerings from Firetide and Strix Systems. These systemswere marketed primarily to organizations that valued fast deployment. Infact, Firetide still bills itself as the company that provides "instantmesh networks." We were intrigued by the capabilities of these products,but not all that impressed by the price and performance. Still, forenvironments where pulling new backhaul cables isn't practical, theyprovide an effective solution.

Like many technologies, mesh quickly morphed--in response tomarket--demand from a technology that made in-building WLAN deploymenteasier to a technology that facilitated deployment of outdoor wirelessLANs. Tropos and MeshNetworks, which was recently acquired by Motorola,established themselves as leaders in the outdoor market through a numberof intriguing deployments. MeshNetworks was first out of the gate withthe technology and laid claim to the best company name. Meanwhile,Tropos, billing itself as a cellular WLAN provider, signed deals forwireless deployments in Baton Rouge, La., and San Mateo, Calif.

More recently, BelAir Networks emerged as a player in this market,offering a unique, multi-radio carrier-class solution and marketing itnot only as a solution for outdoor access but also as a means of"lighting up" entire buildings from the outside looking in. We recentlytested BelAir's product, which provides access service over 802.11b andbackhaul using 802.11a, on the Syracuse University campus and came awayimpressed with its capabilities. But we're not entirely convinced thatthe market is ready for primetime. The technology still presents manychallenges, mostly related to the tradeoff between coverage andcapacity. If you can't provide a large coverage cell, it's tough tojustify the high cost of these products. As cell size increases, though,more users contend for 802.11's shared spectrum. This situation becomeseven more problematic if users connect at the fringe of the coveragearea where signal levels drop the data rate to 1 Mbps. That effectivelyslows down the entire network.This week, Strix jumped into the market with an outdoor product thatsupports six radios and provides significant flexibility, especiallywhen used with directional antennas. While pricing has not yet beenannounced, we were told that it would be well less than competitors.Also this week, Tropos announced a partnership with Boingo Wireless,which currently offers Wi-Fi hotspot services at over 12,000 locationsworldwide. This move opens the door for more metro hotzone deployments,which have received a fair amount of hype recently.

We're still not convinced that public-access metro Wi-Fi has legs. Thereare immense technical and political obstacles. In fact, over a dozenstates have already enacted legislation, some of it under pressure fromincumbent cellular carriers, to restrict these citywide deployments.However, even if public metro Wi-Fi never takes off, there are stillplenty of other interesting applications, including public safety, wherelaw-enforcement agencies are looking to enhance communications withouthaving to contract for services with traditional cellular dataproviders. And there's plenty of grant money available for thesedeployments.

If mesh takes off in this market, it will provide a live laboratory inwhich technology problems can be addressed while also providing R&Dcapital to the vendors plying their wares in this market. And withindustry heavyweights like Motorola and Nortel also getting into thegame, you can bet you'll be hearing more out of the wireless mesh marketin 2005.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights