Cisco to Bring Wireless Mesh to Gulf Coast Schools

A $40 million donation to Gulf Coast schools marks the company's commitment to the technology.

With its announcement of a $40 million initiative to rebuild schools along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, Cisco Systems Inc. tipped its hand on mesh networking plans.

Cisco CEO John Chambers last week said the company and some of its officers will fund the multiphase project to help rebuild schools damaged during Hurricane Katrina. With $2 million from Chambers personal bank account as well as a $10 million personal donation from Cisco Chairman John Morgridge, the initiative will include wireless broadband mesh networks that extend school resources to entire towns.

Chambers mention of wireless mesh for municipalities marked Ciscos first public commitment to the technology. In a wireless mesh, the network dynamically routes packets from node to node, so only one access point has to be connected directly to the wired network; the rest share a connection with one another over the air.

Cisco is planning to launch its first wireless mesh hardware in November, including a new outdoor access point called the Aironet 1500, according to sources close to the San Jose, Calif., company.

Several companies already offer wireless mesh products, including hardware giants Nortel Networks Inc. and Motorola Inc. and smaller mesh specialists such as Tropos Networks Inc.—which recently named former Cisco wireless networking executive Saar Gillai as its vice president of engineering. But as has been the case with other networking technology, Ciscos unhurried commitment may indicate a tipping point.

"They are a bit late on this front, but it should be a good seller for them," said Ken Dulaney, a San Jose-based analyst at consultancy Gartner Inc. "I think they will hurt some players like BelAir [Networks Inc.] and Tropos because their play was primarily because Cisco wasnt there. Now they will have to compete on technology and price."

Cisco customers are used to having to wait for new technology, in part because the company generally takes longer to test new products than startups do.

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"I think theyll make sure it integrates with the rest of their product line and theyll build in safeguards," said Felix Lin, senior network engineer at Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago, which employs a WLAN (wireless LAN) of some 110 Cisco Aironet 350 and Aironet 1200 access points across its campus.

The Aironet 1500 is mentioned in an online project at the IIT, in which students have planned a dream campus network for the year 2020. In real life, while encouraged by Ciscos commitment to wireless mesh, "Wed have to see a clear benefit, especially if we had to replace the access points," Lin said. "It would have to be a lot more than: Hey, now its mesh. It would have to be a bandwidth increase or benefit. Otherwise, its going to be a hard sell."

Cisco officials declined to comment on launch plans, but they have said in the past that the company plans to take full advantage of the assets of Airespace Inc., a wireless hardware startup that already had developed mesh hardware when Cisco acquired it in January.

The Federal Communications Commission last week posted several documents about Ciscos upcoming mesh access point on its Web site last week. According to the documents, the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series lightweight outdoor mesh access point can handle point-to-point bridging, point-to-multipoint bridging and point-to-multipoint mesh wireless connectivity. It is designed to sit outside, either on a rooftop or on a pole, and it supports IEEE 802.11a and 802.11b/g standards in the 5GHz and 2.4GHz radio bands, respectively. According to test reports, the access point can also run in the 4.9GHz range, which is used primarily for public- safety functions in the United States.

The Aironet 1500 Series delivers throughput rates of between 6M bps and 54M bps, according to the user manual.

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