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Wireless Mesh Coming of Age

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

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When this market was in its gestation phase last year, we looked at
early indoor offerings from Firetide and Strix Systems. These systems
were marketed primarily to organizations that valued fast deployment. In
fact, Firetide still bills itself as the company that provides "instant
mesh networks." We were intrigued by the capabilities of these products,
but not all that impressed by the price and performance. Still, for
environments where pulling new backhaul cables isn't practical, they
provide an effective solution.

Like many technologies, mesh quickly morphed--in response to
market--demand from a technology that made in-building WLAN deployment
easier to a technology that facilitated deployment of outdoor wireless
LANs. Tropos and MeshNetworks, which was recently acquired by Motorola,
established themselves as leaders in the outdoor market through a number
of intriguing deployments. MeshNetworks was first out of the gate with
the technology and laid claim to the best company name. Meanwhile,
Tropos, billing itself as a cellular WLAN provider, signed deals for
wireless 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 it
not only as a solution for outdoor access but also as a means of
"lighting up" entire buildings from the outside looking in. We recently
tested BelAir's product, which provides access service over 802.11b and
backhaul using 802.11a, on the Syracuse University campus and came away
impressed with its capabilities. But we're not entirely convinced that
the market is ready for primetime. The technology still presents many
challenges, mostly related to the tradeoff between coverage and
capacity. If you can't provide a large coverage cell, it's tough to
justify the high cost of these products. As cell size increases, though,
more users contend for 802.11's shared spectrum. This situation becomes
even more problematic if users connect at the fringe of the coverage
area where signal levels drop the data rate to 1 Mbps. That effectively
slows down the entire network.

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