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Wireless Mesh on the Comeback Trail

For some, the lure of wireless mesh networking – fast to deploy, flexible, and cost effective – is irresistible. But the big question is: does the technology have a future in the wider world of wireless, beyond niche applications such as battlefield radio and community WiFi?

Mesh has its roots in military applications, where it is used to create self-forming, self-healing, and self-routing mobile networks on the battlefield. The beauty of it is that there is no single point of failure, and you don't need wires.

Applying this concept to communications infrastructure, as a way to deliver low-cost wireless broadband, is natural enough. The problem is that most previous attempts have failed; but now, using standard 802.11 hardware and some clever routing algorithms, mesh is on the comeback trail.

The key development is the emergence of structured mesh architectures, designed for infrastructure deployments in metro, public-safety, campus, and enterprise markets, according to the latest Unstrung Insider report, Wireless Mesh: New Wave Broadband.

Developed by such major vendors as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), and by a group of relatively well-funded startups, including BelAir Networks Inc., Firetide Inc., Strix Systems Inc., and Tropos Networks, these architectures are designed around a new breed of "wireless mesh router" device. These devices are typically modular in design and contain multiple radios, each serving specific access or backhaul requirements.

Vendors have adopted multiple radio nodes as way to overcome the scaleability issues that have dogged wireless mesh in the past, and to ensure more predictable network throughput and lower latency. By using modular designs, vendors, integrators, and customers are also able to upgrade the radios in each mesh node to incorporate future technologies, such as 802.11n (high-speed WLAN), 802.11e (QOS), and 802.16 (WiMax), that will further improve network coverage, reliability, and design choices.

The result is that, after a false start in the late 90s, today's wireless mesh systems are transforming the way operators, municipalities, and businesses think about rapidly deploying low-cost wireless broadband services.

What's uncertain is how quickly this still-immature market will evolve. Can this generation of wireless mesh succeed where others have failed? My conclusion: "Definitely, maybe."

There are still huge challenges to overcome, before we can declare victory in turning what is essentially a cable-replacement technology for the home or office into a robust, metro-area mesh networking system. But would you bet against a metro WiFi network in every town and city in the next five years?

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

The report, Wireless Mesh: New Wave Broadband, 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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