Perils of the Bleeding Edge

In wireless networking, there is a fine balance between proprietary systems that provide enhanced capabilities and the safety of standardized solutions supported by multiple vendors. Nowhere is this more evident than in the expanding field of public Wi-Fi systems where vendors are using multiple approaches to extend the reach of Wi-Fi over wide areas, in essence trying to morph a local area technology into a wide area technology. One of the pioneers in this area was Vivato Inc., which used a beam forming radio technology to dramatically improve range. Unfortunately, at the end of last month Vivato went out of business, leaving a number of municipal Wi-Fi networks built with Vivato’s technology asking questions about how to maintain their networks.

The current most popular approach for municipal networks is not Vivato’s approach, but to use mesh technology, where access points don’t all have to be connected to a backbone. Access points forward packets from other access points towards nodes on the backbone, thus significantly reducing overall deployment costs. Though leading vendors such as Cisco have gotten into the game, helping legitimize the mesh concept, all current solutions are vendor specific, putting municipalities that use these products at risk should their vendors go out of business. Fortunately, mesh Wi-Fi standardization is coming, through IEEE 802.11s. However, it is too early to tell what impact this standard will have, and to what extent risks of vendors going out of business will be mitigated. It is one thing to have a Wi-Fi network in a building become obsolete. It is another matter entirely when the Wi-Fi network covers an entire city.

For those of you wanting to learn more about municipal and mesh Wi-Fi technical developments, I recommend a meeting I’m chairing for the Portable Computer and Communications Association on Feb 2, 2006 in San Francisco that will investigate this topic in detail.

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