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BelAir Marries Mesh & WiMax

BelAir Networks Inc. is marrying two industry buzzwords -- "WiMax" and "mesh" -- into a single product, which will improve the quality of municipal wireless networks, officials say.

The company is set to introduce a WiMax radio module for use in wireless mesh networks. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday posted its approval of the module, which runs in the WCS (Wireless Communication Service) 2.3GHz band of licensed spectrum in the United States. Officials at BelAir acknowledge the product and say it's good to go.

"I'm pretty confident this is a first in the industry," says Steve Rayment, CTO of BelAir. "There are two major applications that we envisage. One is the simpler one, which is backhauling WiFi with a higher reliability. And the other, kind of more interesting one, is using the WiMax technology to create links within the clusters themselves." The module can be tweaked for either use via a software upgrade, he says.

In a wireless mesh network, the network dynamically routes packets from node to node. A few nodes have to be connected directly to the wired network, but the rest share a connection with one another over the air, making such a network ideal for city-wide WiFi deployments. Most mesh networks operate in unlicensed bands, often using an 802.11b/g radio in the 2.4GHz range for the downlink and an 802.11a radio for the backhaul. Leaders in the mesh hardware market include specialists like Tropos Networks Inc. and Strix Systems Inc. and networking giants such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT). (See Wireless Mesh: Ready!)

The wireless broadband technology known as WiMax is designed to run in a variety of licensed spectrum bands. Bringing licensed spectrum into the mesh mix should mitigate the interference issues inherent in WiFi networks, says Gabriel Brown, chief analyst at Unstrung Insider, who recently completed a report on mesh networking. "This will be on the roadmap of all the vendors," he says. (See Mesh Fit for a MAN's Job?)

"The big plus is that it's higher reliability," Rayment says. "It's a licensed band, so it's guaranteed."

Rayment says some carriers have begun testing mesh networks that utilize the new module. He declines to say who they are but notes that they are, necessarily, owners of WCS spectrum in the 2.3GHz range. "There's a finite list of people in the United States who have 2.3GHz licenses," he says. Notable owners include BellSouth Corporation , AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ).

Of course, improvements in performance come at a cost. The WiMax module "will be more than the WiFi module that we have today, so there will be something of a price penalty to pay, but that's the price for performance," he says. "Improvements in range and performance are worth something." BelAir declines to divulge what carriers are paying for access points equipped with the WiMax module.

But while performance is important, some service providers say that it's not always as important as price, especially in cases where the carrier is footing the bill for a municipal wireless deployment.

"The vendor that understands the cost per square mile is going to win, whether they have great throughput or not," says Frank McCarthy, CEO of CitiWifi Networks, a Florida municipal service provider. (See Wireless Mesh Passes Test.)

Indeed, market leader Tropos plans to wait for WiMax costs to drop before supporting it.

"We certainly have plans to eventually incorporate WiMax into our products, when this becomes economically feasible," says Brad Day, a spokesman for Tropos. "Right now, especially in the licensed band, this comes at a significant cost. As a result, it makes the ROI [return on investment] models for metro-scale wireless less attractive for carriers and service providers. That being said, we are seeing a great deal of interest -- especially internationally -- for hybrid WiFi/WiMax systems."

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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