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August 18, 2006
With the release yesterday of the first of a new line of mesh WiFi routers from Tropos Networks Inc. , the tech wars in the mesh networking space entered a new phase.
As foreseen by Unstrung (and spotted in the field by an alert Unstrung reader), the new 5320 outdoor MetroMesh router is the first dual-radio node from Tropos. To date the company has stressed the ability of the software on its single-radio devices to keep up with throughput in outdoor wireless networks, while competitors like BelAir Networks Inc. have been producing multi-radio setups for more than a year. (See Mesh Mash-Up.)
"Mesh vendors without significant outdoor deployment experience throw a bunch of radios in a box and think they’re done," said Saar Gillai, vice president of engineering at Tropos, in a statement. "Providing affordable capacity in wireless mesh networks is less about the number of radios in the system and more about the efficiency with which the system uses the spectrum those radios access."
Nevertheless, perhaps bowing to the inevitable, Tropos now says it will offer mesh routers with multiple radios in the near future. The 5320 also has the ability to dynamically shift frequencies on the fly depending on which is the optimum path to a client or to another mesh node. The system software will automatically choose the highest-performing path within the mesh at any given time, says Tropos vice president of marketing Ellen Kirk.
"It allows access to additional spectrum without requiring excessive node density," Kirk adds. "Ours is the only router that will actually choose the most effective path."
Not so, counters Stephen Rayment, CTO and co-founder of BelAir Networks Inc. , who has engaged in something of a verbal battle through the media lately, disputing Tropos's claims. "Tropos positions their new product as the 'first and only mesh router that can dynamically create multi-band paths,' " Rayment scoffs, "but BelAir Networks already delivers that capability and we also delivered the first multi-service, multi-radio switched mesh (supporting WiFi, WiMax, and cellular on one node)."
It's true that many network operators, like Kevin Triplett, CEO of Northern California ISP Softcom, see the slightly pricier BelAir equipment as technologically superior to the competition.
"We took a look at BelAir early on and frankly we pushed them aside at first, cause we got sticker shock looking at the cost," says Triplett, who now has between 50 and 60 BelAir multi-radio nodes and around 40 Bel Air dual-radio devices deployed in the town of Galt, Calif. "But once we got done testing other vendors, and based on how the Tropos technology operates, we decided it wasn’t going to work for us because it would not allow us to compete with cable and DSL."
BelAir's technical superiority has not translated into market leadership. Among the mesh-equipment startups Tropos is the clear winner in terms of units sold, according to unpublished market-share research by Godfrey Chua, research manager for wireless and mobile infrastructure at IDC . And so far, the demand for sophisticated multi-radio "smart routing" equipment has not taken off.
"If you look at the primary consumer space these [municipal] networks are serving, it's low to mid-tier subscribers," Chua explains. "They're trying to migrate 56k dialup users to close to a 1Mbit/s service. So, especially for municipalities, people just want the cheapest system that they know works. And Tropos has lots of experience at deploying those systems."
In two or three years that will change, as network operators target enterprise customers who want higher quality-of-service guarantees and richer mobile applications. That's why Tropos is future-proofing its technology and its business model now by introducing multi-radio systems. And it's why, in the muni wireless space, the tech wars may have only begun.
"The big first municipal networks are only now being deployed," observes Chura. "So we'll have to wait and see how well this technology scales and how it's able to deliver at the level of subscribers these bigger networks are expecting. There's a lot of fundamental questions that will be answered over the next six to 12 months. It's really a critical time for the industry."
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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