Tropos Unveils Metro WiFi Spec
The idea is that a corporate wireless LAN has different requirements than a city-wide wireless mesh network, and client devices should respond in kind. For example, a laptop with a standard WiFi radio might lack sufficient transmission power to get through a wall and onto the outdoor network. (See Indoor Trouble.)
"A metro network is much more akin to a cellular network, and the devices have to be aware of what the outdoor environment is like," says Chris Rittler, VP of business development and product management at Tropos, which makes mesh networking hardware for municipal WiFi networks, for customers that include the city of Philadelphia. "WiFi runs at a pretty high frequency, so you're going to have propagation challenges."
The specification also addresses issues such as customer support and security concerns, offering integration with the management software Tropos already offers on the network side. "It's a very different world out there on the street than it is in the enterprise," Rittler says.
The idea of a network hardware maker announcing proprietary client extensions is not new. WiFi market leader Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) announced its Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) program more than three years ago, along with a star-studded list of licensees, including Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN). (See Cisco Licenses WLAN Code.) Tropos has announced only one product that meets the TMCX specification so far: PePLink's Surf 200BG subscriber station.
Wireless multimedia equipment maker Ruckus Wireless Inc. , a partner of Tropos's, also plans to support the specification.
"For the metro space you do need a whole different kind of CPE because all the current WiFi bridge products are built for indoor use," says Selina Lo, CEO of Ruckus. "When you look at having to access an outdoor access point there's obviously a range requirement. And there are interference issues: leaves blowing, birds flying…"
Ruckus plans to introduce a box within the next 90 days that will "meet and exceed" Tropos's requirements, and will include the ability to associate with the highest-performing Tropos node, Lo says.
In terms of commercial muni WiFi deployments, competitors argue that service providers are likely to work with only a few hardware providers anyway, for both customer premises equipment and network equipment. They argue that service providers will ensure interoperability among the equipment they use, regardless of an industry specification.
"Generally, the approach for service providers will be to work with the vendors they know to find CPE devices," says Nan Chen, VP of marketing at Strix Systems Inc. , which competes against Tropos in the municipal WiFi space. "The carrier will often ask for an overall solution rather than to piecemeal things together."
One industry expert applauds the cause, but not the channel. "In general I think client extensions are a good idea, and we need them," says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group . "The problem is this needs to be done under the auspices of a recognized standards body."
Tropos has no immediate plans to bring a standards body into this. "We would certainly support any such initiative," writes Brad Day, a spokesman for Tropos, in an email to Light Reading. "We have the experience necessary to provide the information necessary to give such a standard some substance. Standards groups, however, tend to take a very long time to develop these types of specs... and at the rapid rate of metro-scale WiFi deployment the industry is seeing worldwide, there is a much more immediate need for these enhanced devices."
Indeed, speed has never been the strong suit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) , which is in charge of most wireless LAN standards. A standard for interoperability among wireless mesh access points, dubbed 802.11s, is in the works but not due to be published until July 2008.
"802.11s is nowhere now," says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner Inc. . "And it will likely fail because the vendors are so far along in their [own] development."
— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading