As Tropos readies multi-radio AP, metro networking market hits overdrive

July 7, 2006

4 Min Read
Mesh Mash-Up

It's usually a sign that a market is overheating when companies start issuing dueling claims to be the "first" to introduce this piece of gear, or the "market leader" in a particular technology.

That seems to be the case in the mesh-networking sector, where the advent of "WiMax-ready" and "WiMax-integrated" systems has shifted the competitive scene from a land rush (as American cities issue ever-more-grandiose proclamations of metro-wide mesh networks) to a show of technological one-upmanship (as companies boost the sizzle of their systems with superlatives of power, performance, and throughput).

The latest company to up the ante is Tropos Networks Inc. , which has for some time been on the verge of releasing its first multi-radio access point. Apparently those units are now being tested on the streets of Silicon Valley. (See BelAir Marries Mesh & WiMax.)

A source close to Tropos sent us photos of what is purportedly a multi-radio Tropos access point on top of a lamppost in Sunnyvale, Cal. "The radio interfaces [on the Tropos APs] are interchangeable," the source says, "2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, 802.11n, WiMax, even licensed bands."

Saying it's no secret that Tropos has been developing such multi-radio systems, Tropos vice president of marketing Ellen Kirk tacitly confirms that the units are actually being tested outdoors: "We wouldn't be able to productize it if we haven't tested it, so yes, you might see some Tropos products on the wall that don't look like the stuff in the product catalogue."

This step represents "sweet justice" for Tropos, which has long dismissed the need for multi-radio components in large-scale mesh networks, according to Stephen Rayment, CTO of Tropos competitor BelAir Networks Inc. . Other mesh network equipment makers, including BelAir and Strix Systems Inc. , have produced multi-radio systems.

"They spent a long time saying that's nonsense, it's not necessary, it's not the right thing to do, now they've turned 360 degrees and are implementing what we did 18 months ago."

"We develop our products based on the business models our customers want and can support, and in 300-plus deployments we've run into a lot of interesting challenges to solve, but never has capacity been one of those problems," counters Kirk. "When the business model requires additional capacity, or a multi-mode product, we'll have one."

Vendor verbal ping-pong aside, it's clear that the mesh networking industry has reached a state of creative ferment, if not yet destruction. "Tipping point," "critical mass" -- choose your metaphor, but the integration of "true," standards-based WiMax into mesh networks for dependable and secure backhaul, along with the increasing complexity and sophistication of service provider deployments, has advanced the art and science of mesh networks significantly beyond where it was only a year ago. (See Strix Has WiMax Plans.)

"What we're seeing, as the service providers get involved, is that they have 'carrier-grade' expectations, with these networks moving to multi-service deployments and a slew of different applications on the same network," explains Rayment. "Whether it's public safety, public access, or enterprise applications, the requirements in terms of throughput and latency are going up and up. And you can't get there with single-radio mesh."

Ultimately, end-users don't care about single-radio vs. multi-radio technical debates; they care about the three Cs: coverage, connectivity, and cost. And, hype aside, mesh networks are entering a phase of being capable, in a variety of architectures and over an array of frequencies, of providing wide coverage and high levels of connectivity at low cost.

"The fact is there's not a lot of experience out there at building these networks," says Kirk. "That's why people focus on radios -- there's a bunch of radioheads out there. A lot of those people have built radios, and a lot of them are really good. But throwing radios at the problems that arise in metro-scale WiFi networks doesn't solve the problems."

Nan Chen, vice president of marketing for Strix, puts the same thought in another way: "WiMax is just another technology for wireless mesh, which is the real revolution for data networking -- having a similar impact like the cellular revolution in the telephony industry. We are just at the beginning of the data-networking industry revolution."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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