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Brookline Gets 4.9GHz Net

Moving to take advantage of relaxed "emission mask" requirements for public-safety networks in the 4.9GHz band, Strix Systems Inc. today said it is working with Galaxy to deploy a wireless network in the Boston-area community of Brookline, Mass., that will combine commercial services with access for police, fire, and emergency service personnel.

Using Strix gear, the network will incorporate 4.9GHz access for public safety use, 802.11g technology running over the 2.4GHz band for residents, and backhaul over 802.11a connections. The first municipal WiFi network in the Boston area, the Brookline project marks a step forward for Strix, one of a number of wireless mesh providers trying to establish a beachhead in a market that is expected to undergo significant consolidation in the next 12 to 18 months.

"This is really the first time that something is in place that makes practical sense on a large scale for 4.9[GHz] technology," says Kirby Russell, director of product marketing for Strix.

That's a statement that Strix’s competitors, including giants Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), would likely contest. Motorola, for example, unveiled a dual-band WiFi card last summer that operates over the 2.4GHz and 4.9GHz bands, with a pilot project in Tulsa, Okla.

There's no doubt that the network in Brookline, an affluent urban community of 58,000 southwest of downtown Boston, will be a high-visibility project, combining advanced public-safety applications (including, according to Russell, the ability to download 3D renderings of buildings to police and fire personnel in the field) with high-speed Internet connections to local businesses and residents.

The development of 4.9GHz networks for public safety agencies has been slowed by controversy over the FCC's mandate of emission masks -- essentially, regulations that define how much radio power can be transmitted at a given frequency. Briefly, since the FCC allocated 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9GHz band for public safety use in 2003, a group of networking vendors including Cisco and Nortel Networks Ltd. , along with the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, had complained that the mask for the 4.9 band was too restrictive.

In a compromise move, the FCC issued two masks, one for low-power applications similar to public WiFi hotspots, and one for high-power systems such as the one being installed in Brookline.

The initial mask limited 4.9GHz networks to about half the coverage of systems using 802.11g, explains Russell. "Now we have this higher-power [mask], so we're no longer limited to half the coverage of .a or .g [networks], and we can now deploy 4.9GHz in a more consistent and pervasive fashion to support these advanced applications."

The Brookline contract comes at a time when Strix and other municipal wireless startups such as BelAir Networks Inc. and Tropos Networks Inc. are facing increased competition from deep-pocketed, diversified companies like Cisco and Motorola. Many observers expect two or three wireless mesh vendors to fold or be acquired in 2007. Russell, naturally, doesn't think Strix will be one of them. (See Mesh Shakeout Looms.)

"We're looking at exponential growth in 2006 over 2005 at this point," he says. "We're in this market for the long haul."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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