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WiMax Gets All Meshed Up

Startups in the emerging market of wireless LAN mesh networking are planning to introduce WiMax technology that can extend the range of their products next year.

Currently, a number of startups, as well as major players like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) have -- or are working on -- 802.11-based mesh networking systems (see Cisco Creates Safety Net and Nortel: Another Fine Mesh).

Wireless mesh technology is intended to reduce the amount of wiring and setup costs for large-scale 802.11 access networks, while increasing the area that can be covered by such networks. Instead of connecting every access point (AP) to a wired broadband connection, the mesh makers typically only wire up a few APs in a network and pass data traffic back and forth to those connections over high-speed 54-Mbit/s 802.11 radio links, while having separate 802.11b (11 Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) connections for user access.

Manufacturers tend to build dedicated hardware that combines both a front-end wireless LAN access radio for users and a separate radio to handle the connectivity among the access points themselves in one box.

Now, mesh startups BelAir Networks and Tropos Networks are looking at using the newly ratified 802.16d specification -- which will soon form the basis of WiMax metropolitan area products -- to extend the throughput and range of their mesh networking products.

Phil Belanger, VP of marketing at BelAir, says that WiMax has an “obvious appeal” for his firm. BelAir is currently using “a variant” of 802.11a (54 Mbit/s over 5GHz) to provide the mesh between APs on a network. Without the aid of additional antennas, 802.11a only has a range of several hundred feet.

If WiMax lives up to at least some of its promise of connections measured in miles rather than meters, it could mean that operators will need to install fewer APs in sparsely populated areas in order to get good mesh coverage among radio nodes. In more urban areas, the technology is likely to be less useful because the density of the network will probably be dictated by the need to support end users connecting to WiFi services at a particular hotspot, rather than by the distance between nodes on a mesh.

Belanger says that BelAir is starting to plot a WiMax radio module now, although he thinks the startup will have to work with WiMax chips -- when they arrive later this year -- to make them suitable for its purposes. The company is anticipating that it will introduce a WiMax product sometime in 2005.

Rival startup Tropos is also working a similar WiMax product. Tropos's PR man, Brad Day, says the firm is developing a “hybrid WiMax/WiFi product" that should “be available in the next 12 to 18 months."

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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