Carrier WiFi

Mesh Fit for a MAN's Job?

The excitement surrounding municipal networks, as well as related applications such as mobile VOIP and wireless DSL, is driving a worldwide resurgence of interest in wireless mesh technology.

Wireless mesh is attractive for many reasons:

  • Because it leverages a huge installed base of 802.11 wireless LAN (WiFi) clients
  • Because it makes use of commodity hardware
  • Because it is deployed in unlicensed spectrum
  • And because, in theory, it requires relatively few wired backhaul points or large, cellular-style base station sites.

In a nutshell, it's seen as a way to provide low-cost, semi-mobile broadband access services. But here's the catch: Wireless LAN was designed, as the name indicates, for local-area networks, within regulatory constraints intended to limit its range. Scaling the technology up for outdoor metro-area networks (MANs) can work, but it's a challenge that, by definition, involves performance compromises.

And for all the buzz surrounding "city-wide" mesh networks, wireless ISPs and municipal network operators interviewed for the latest Unstrung Insider report, Wireless Mesh: From Enterprise to Metro, stress the need to set realistic expectations for the throughput, coverage, and cost of wireless mesh networks.

Bottom line: Yes, the combination of mesh and outdoor WiFi is a disruptive force in networking – as much in the new business models it enables as in the technology evolution itself – but let's keep what it can do in perspective.

Consider these three examples:

  • In London, Cityspace Ltd. 's StreetNet project, developed in cooperation with the local government, promises to create "canyons of coverage" along major roads, with targeted hotspots of coverage in busy areas, such as schools, conference centers, and community facilities. The network uses BelAir Networks Inc. equipment.

  • In Oklahoma City, the citywide public safety network being built out with a mixture of Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) Canopy broadband wireless access equipment and Tropos Networks Inc. mesh nodes aims to provide outdoor coverage only, over a large area, to a closed user-group, with no pretence of serving a high density of public-access users.

  • In Philadelphia, host to one of the most ambitious citywide wireless projects to date, users will be required to purchase specialized high-powered CPE to enable indoor service (through the first wall of the building). The network, to be deployed and operated by EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK), is expected to use Canopy and Tropos equipment.

Typically, for every example of an outdoor wireless mesh network, the operator has an application and user base in mind that drives a specific mesh architecture and network design.

Our research has yet to turn up a mesh operator that claims to offer, or thinks it has realistic chance to offer, blanket citywide coverage of high-speed mobile/wireless access services to all comers that will outstrip the price, coverage, and performance of both cellular and wired services. This is simply unrealistic.

What is disruptive is the potential for these networks to siphon marginal business from coffee-shop hotspots, 3G data card services, and wired broadband providers. In the longer term, WiFi-enabled PDAs and cell phones could also emerge to take advantage of these outdoor meshes.

Back in the real world, the clash of civilizations between the big telcos and the little WiFi mesh guys has yet to materialize – that is, beyond the media pages, the lawyers' offices, and the industry PR machine. Wireless mesh is what it is, and "what it is" really depends on the specific goals and design tradeoffs unique to each installation.

The Insider report analyzes mesh architectures for outdoor citywide and neighborhood-scale networks, with analysis of the startups and major-name vendors at the forefront of infrastructure-grade wireless mesh systems.

According to the report, which presents comparative data on 27 separate wireless mesh products – including U.S. list pricing and street-price data points – the infrastructure mesh market is poised for growth as equipment starts to mature and municipalities step up as "anchor tenants" to help drive operators' business cases.

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

The report, Wireless Mesh: From Enterprise to Metro, 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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