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Gorillas in the Mesh

Big, hairy vendors like Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) are now better placed to take the lead in the mobile mesh market -- a sector that has so far been dominated by startups -- according to the latest edition of the Unstrung Insider.

The report, "Wireless Mesh: New Wave Broadband," profiles major vendors that have a stake in this emerging market, such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Motorola, and Nortel, as well as more than eight startups, including trail blazing names like BelAir Networks Inc., Firetide Inc., and Tropos Networks.

The startups have made the early running in the mesh market by using low-cost 802.11 radios as the basis of routing nodes that pass data among themselves and require far fewer wired connections to operate than typical WiFi networks. This technology has been pushed as "metro mesh," a cheap way for municipalities and operators to offer large public access networks that can often also be used to provide wireless access for emergency workers.

But now, according to the report's author, Gabriel Brown, larger vendors are getting in on the game. This suggests that the market could be ripe for the kind of expansion and consolidation that we have seen in the enterprise wireless LAN market over the last couple of years (see The Switch Fix Is In).

Motorola's recent acquisition of startup pioneer MeshNetworks appears to be a leading indicator of this trend (see Moto Moves on Mesh).

Surveying the incumbent networking vendors getting into mesh, Brown finds that Nortel has one big advantage over the current leaders in the metro mesh market. "Unlike startup competitors, the group is able to tap expertise from other Nortel groups," he writes. "For example, the [802.11] products use smart-antenna technology from Nortel's Harlow Labs and routing know-how from the wireline group."

Which is not to say that Nortel is averse to partnering to bring in additional know-how:

"Nortel's partnership with mobile mesh vendor PacketHop points to a future where it is able offer a broader range of mesh-based products, which should differentiate Nortel from its infrastructure-only competitors in key verticals such as public safety. As its product set matures, it will become an even more formidable competitor."

Meanwhile, Motorola is trying to extend its lead in the public safety radio market with the recently announced MotoMesh product, which uses proprietary radios as well the more standard 802.11 transceivers (see Moto Moves on Mesh).

This could be both a blessing and curse [ed. note: a blurse?], according to Brown:

"The non-802.11 nature of Motorola's mesh system is both a strength and a weakness. On the positive side, the multi-channel, QOS, location, and ad hoc features, combined with a relatively lower risk of interference, make it attractive for the core public-safety market. On the negative side, the high cost of the products, combined with the automatic vendor lock-in, make it unattractive... "Many of the problems with standard 802.11 today may not be problems tomorrow, and Motorola's proprietary radios will not be able to take advantage of the same economies of scale as 802.11. Proprietary technology is also a non-starter for the WISP and service-provider markets; it's therefore encouraging to see Motorola's commitment to a dual-concept 802.11-plus-proprietary network."

Cisco, Brown finds, merely has a toe in the mesh market at the moment, but that could change because of its acquisition of switch startup Airespace Inc.:

"It would be hard to describe Cisco as a wireless mesh vendor in the same sense as the other companies featured in this report," Brown writes. "However, the company is targeting the same markets with products that meet many of the same criteria: the 3200 mobile router and its Aironet wireless LAN product line...

"The idea that Cisco will, at some point, launch a mesh product is also strengthened by its acquisition of enterprise wireless LAN provider Airespace in the first quarter of 2005. According to our sources, Airespace had developed a two-radio mesh product that had been due to launch in March 2005. Cisco and Airespace declined to comment on the specifics of this product."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

The report, Wireless Mesh: New Wave Broadband, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,350. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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