Muni Mesh Mash Up
This flurry of activity exposes something about this emerging market: For all the noise and hype there's no clear, cohesive strategy for vendors in the mesh space yet, whether they are working on municipal networks for public safety applications or providing the citizens of a town or city with cheap -- or free -- wireless access.
The basic concept of wireless mesh networking is a system that uses a series of gateways, or nodes, that pass data and share bandwidth among them rather than sending and receiving data from a central point. Mesh networking may be considered a team sport, with players passing the data “ball” up and down the field -- as opposed to the golf-like cable model, where a solitary player has to hit the ball into many different holes. Boosters say that this kind of network can be cheaper to run and more flexible than fixed alternatives.
Established vendors are trying to build on their existing public safety network legacy and contracts using wireless LAN and related technologies. The startups are looking to grab an initial foothold in the marketplace by offering applications like VOIP over WLAN mesh networking and "instant" ad-hoc public safety networking between handhelds and laptops.
Public safety maven Motorola has scored a $2 million deal to provide a public safety network in Providence, RI. Motorola is using the properitary 2.4GHz radio system it acquired when it bought Mesh Networks last year for the deployment, rather than its newer dual-radio 4.9GHz product line (see Moto Gets Mesh and Moto Moves on Mesh).
Proxim, which was recently acquired by Terabeam Wireless (Nasdaq: YDIW), will follow Motorola down the 4.9Ghz path, with the announcement of a dual 2.4GHz and 4.9GHz metro mesh system. The 4.9GHz band is solely dedicated to public safety applications and has recently been opened up for mesh networking applications (see FCC Opens Safety Floodgates).
While more established players look to build on their public safety, newer vendors are plotting fresh applications for public metro mesh networks.
For instance, startups Firetide and Meru have teamed up to offer VOIP over mesh networks for metropolitan meshes, rural deployments, and smaller WISPs.
"We have been working with Firetide on several metro WiFi deals," says Ben Gibson, VP of marketing at Meru. "We've seen the emergence of a new breed of service provider that delivers competitive broadband wireless service for both residential and community use, often in more rural areas."
The system uses Firetide's routing nodes for backhaul and Meru's software and access points for the VOIP applications. Barbara Cardillo, Firetide's VP of corporate marketing says that the system's latency is "less than 2 milliseconds over 3 [node] hops." "This works very well for voice," she adds.
"The combination is ideal both for the rural applications... as well as true metro deployments, like the Philadelphia metro project, and the recently announced initiative in San Francisco to provide WiFi for the city," opines Meru's Gibson.
Startup PacketHop has always been different from its pure metro mesh rivals. Instead of using a layout of 802.11-based mesh router boxes to wirelessly transfer data over much greater areas than standard 802.11 networks, PacketHop has developed software for WiFi clients that allows the devices themselves to act as nodes in an ad-hoc mesh network (see PacketHop Gets $10M).
The company has a new software update that intensifies its increasing focus on public safety applications. The update adds voice and video capabilities that the firm says emergency services could use at the site of an incident. The point of using its software to form an ad-hoc network, says PacketHop, is that first responders wouldn't be beholden to an existing, fixed network that may get overloaded in an emergency.
Of course all these merry mesh-keteers don't merely face competition from their direct rivals. Vendors offering WiMax -- and so-called "pre-WiMax" -- technology are also competing for public safety and municipal projects. Witness the recent announcement of the installation of a "pre-WiMax" public safety testbed in New York City.
And it's not 100 percent clear yet if Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) will be a major player in this market following its $600 million acquisition of Flarion Technologies (see Qualcomm Calls on Flarion). But that's certainly one of the applications that Flarion's technology could be used for.
— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung