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Proxim Mashes Mesh, WiMax

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Blending today's WiFi technology for municipal wireless networks with tomorrow's, Proxim Wireless Corp. will debut later today a new hybrid multi-radio node that combines a meshed WiFi access point with a WiMax system that can both serve as backhaul for the WiFi mesh and provide network access to WiMax client devices.

The "MeshMax" line is "the industry's first integrated WiMax/mesh product," claims Geoffrey Smith, Proxim's vice partner for worldwide marketing and product management. "Everything else is just doing partnerships, with separate boxes."

While WiMax systems have long been used to provide backhaul for large-scale deployments of meshed WiFi networks -- indeed, that application has been seen as the first mover of the market for broadband wireless equipment based on the 802.16 standard -- the combination of mesh and WiMax equipment in a single, lamppost-mounted box is a logical next step for outdoor municipal networks.

"Service providers, municipalities, and other customers have been asking for a product that will simplify the process of deploying and managing both WiFi mesh and WiMax together," commented Pankaj Manglik, Proxim's president and COO, in a statement.

Nonetheless, the firm will face competition in the mesh and WiMax field, especially from Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT). While the Schaumburg, Ill.-based vendor does not have a combo 802.11/802.16 box yet, it does have a portfolio of WiFi and proprietary mesh products; WiMax infrastructure; and wireless broadband radio links.

While many industry observers have viewed WiFi, with its interference problems and the need for a high number of nodes in dense distributions, as a short-term technology fix for municipal applications, others believe that meshed WiFi and WiMax will coexist for many years to come.

"The convergence of WiMax and mesh is a natural evolution in broadband wireless, as it maximizes the strengths of both technologies," opines Daryl Schoolar, a senior analyst at In-Stat .

A subsidiary of publicly owned Terabeam Inc. (Nadsaq: TRBM), San Jose, Calif.-based Proxim is one of the veteran companies in the startup-filled WiFi/WiMax arena. The company has had a colorful history. Founded in 1983, Proxim was one of the early pioneers in the WiFi and home networking markets. In 2002, the company merged with broadband wireless firm Western Multiplex Corp., which then adopted the Proxim name. In June 2005 Proxim filed for bankruptcy, subsequently selling its assets to Terabeam for $28 million. Under Terabeam, Proxim has shifted its focus from wireless LAN equipment -- a market dominated by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) -- to mesh networks and WiMax equipment. (See Terabeam Hopes to Bounce Ricochet, Proxim Faces D-Day, Proxim Sells Assets for $21M, and Terabeam Grabs Proxim's Assets.)

Earlier this month, the company won a high-profile contract to provide a mesh WiFi network at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the world's largest particle physics laboratory. The MeshMax product is a clear attempt to differentiate Proxim products in the increasingly crowded market for municipal wireless network equipment.

"Mesh gateway products are connected to a backhaul solution for one of two reasons," explains Proxim's Smith. "Either the data access doesn't exist everywhere you need it, or what's available doesn't provide enough bandwidth to provide the services to clients that they're looking for."

The MeshMax device, he adds, solves both those problems. Replacing the separate WiMax subscriber unit and mesh gateway with a single integrated device, the node combines a Layer 2 switch, a WiMax node, and a dual-radio WiFi mesh access point. It will be upgradeable with a software add to 802.16e-based "mobile" WiMax when that standard is finally ratified. The result: networks that are easier to deploy, but offer the highest capacity per square mile of any current mesh system, according to the company.

"The need for backhaul coverage in mesh deployments, along with the desire for more cost-effective solutions for municipal deployments, are driving us to this integration," says Smith. "Both markets will be expanding dramatically over the next few years."

Indeed, according to research from Sky Light Research and the Dell'Oro Group , the combined WiMax/mesh access arenas could represent a $6 billion-plus market over the next three years. Whether this new combined solution will validate Proxim's refurbished strategy remains to be seen. Many observers see the field of WiFi and WiMax gear suppliers being winnowed dramatically over the next 12 to 18 months. (See What's Next for Tropos?)

Smith says the MeshMax product is currently in trials with "several major operators on several different continents," and he expects to announce actual deployments in the coming weeks. List price starts at $999 per node.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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