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Startups Stretch Muni WiFi

Two startups are launching hardware designed to extend the reach of municipal WiFi network signals. But while these products may have technical advantages over what's already on the market, their competition includes a chorus of bigger and better-funded industry players.

Wavion Inc. is entering the market with a mesh access point it says can vastly improve on the coverage of "conventional" mesh access points. Meanwhile, Strix Systems Inc. is introducing an indoor router that connects multiple clients to an outdoor mesh network.

Wavion's "spatially-adaptive" MIMO-based access point employs an antenna array and six radio transceivers to mitigate dead spots, enhance non-line-of-sight coverage, and generally double the range of mesh access points currently on the market. Wavion will compete against other mesh players such as Tropos Networks Inc. , Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Nortel Networks Ltd. , Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), BelAir Networks Inc. , Firetide Inc. , and Strix.

"We can cut the capex in half and do even better in the ongoing opex," says Alan Menezes, vice president of marketing and business development at Wavion, which has offices in San Jose, Calif., and Yoqne'am, Israel.

In a wireless mesh, the network dynamically routes packets from node to node. A few have to be connected directly to the wired network, but the rest share a connection with one another over the air.

Mesh networking is gaining popularity along with municipal wireless deployments. Los Angeles, for example, is expected to elaborate on its municipal WiFi plans later this week, at the W2i Digital Cities Convention, according to Curtis Gibbs, a senior resource development officer in the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. The city already offers free WiFi services in Pershing Square, a downtown park, through a contract with Verge Wireless, using mesh access points from Tropos.

Wavion could cover a square mile with eight access points, officials say, thus cutting down on installment and leasing costs -- in many municipal mesh networks, the service provider is required to lease space on light poles and buildings. Tropos, considered the industry leader, generally uses about 30 access points per square mile. Tropos, for its part, is planning to release a multi-radio access point in the near future. (See Tropos Turns Up the Radios.)

"One can always add more nodes, but multiple radios per node is likely to be the preferred solution long-term," says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group , a wireless industry consultancy. "The real-estate-related costs can be amortized more easily in this case, and, ultimately, it's just cheaper to build multiple radios into a single node than to add multiple nodes."

But there are always risks associated with picking a startup.

"The cost saving has to be offset by a shorter depreciation period an organization should take when using a riskier company like Wavion, versus a Cisco," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc.

On the other hand, Tropos CEO Ron Sege has said he knows of at least 200 municipalities planning for some sort of public WiFi services by the end of the year. "The market is huge -- really huge," Mathias says. "There will be lots of new entrants, so I've yet to assemble a survivor's list."

Wavion has yet to announce any service provider customers, although officials say to expect an announcement within the next 60 days. So far, the company is backed by some $22 million in funding from investors that include Sequoia Capital and Elron Electronic Industries Ltd.

Meanwhile, Strix Systems next month will start shipping the Edge Wireless System, a two-radio box for residential users and small businesses, which connects multiple PCs or VOIP phones to an outdoor mesh. Client devices inside a building often don't have signals strong enough to reach outdoor mesh access points; the EWS employs two radios, one to provide a strong indoor signal, and the other to connect to a Strix-based outdoor mesh.

"This enables [service providers] to manage performance levels, while also enabling seamless roaming," says Kirby Russell, director of product marketing at Strix. Service providers can track each unit by recording the MAC addresses, Russell explains. So far Strix has disclosed only one service provider with plans for the EWS100 -- CitiWifi, which serves the Tampa, Fla., area.

Strix officials say the company plans to provide its reference designs to other CPE vendors, as well. "Service providers can private-label it and add more features," Russell says.

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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