Cisco Validates Wireless Mesh Networking

With its launch of the Aironet 1500 Series access point, Cisco moves into the truly wireless municipal Wi-Fi space.

Cisco Systems Inc. officially entered the wireless mesh networking space on Tuesday, lagging behind its competitors technologically but adding significant validation to a nascent market.

As expected, the networking giant launched the Aironet 1500 Series access point. Designed for outdoor deployments on rooftops or poles, the 1500 Series can automatically set itself up to operate within a mesh network, so that IT administrators dont have to reset anything if there is a power outage.

It also utilizes a proprietary protocol that lets the access point dynamically pick the best data path among other access points in the mesh, said officials at Cisco in San Jose, Calif.

Mesh networks dynamically route packets from node to node. Only one access point needs to be connected directly to the wired network, with several others sharing a connection over the air.

The true wireless nature of a mesh network makes it suitable for municipal Wi-Fi networks. Cisco announced initial mesh deployments in Dayton, Ohio and Lebanon, Ore. The company also is teaming up with both Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM to offer outdoor wireless networking services, officials said.

Several companies already offer wireless mesh products, including hardware giants Nortel Networks Inc. and Motorola Inc. and several smaller mesh specialists such as Tropos Networks Inc. and BelAir Networks Inc.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead details here about Ciscos plan to bring wireless mesh to Gulf Coast schools.

BelAir last week launched version 5.0 of its BelAir mesh system, which adds comprehensive traffic classification features for VOIP (voice-over-IP deployments), said officials at the Kanata, Ontario, company.

Tropos, of Sunnyvale, Calif., launched a series of optimization tools for mesh networks and opened up several APIs to development partners. Tropos is providing the mesh hardware for an upcoming citywide Wi-Fi deployment in Philadelphia.

But as has been the case with other networking technology, Ciscos unhurried commitment may indicate a tipping point.

"Obviously it does validate the whole mesh space," said Mark Whitton, general manager of wireless mesh services at Nortel Networks Ltd., based in Richardson, Texas.

Ciscos Aironet 1500 costs $3,995, which is significantly more expensive than the mesh products of some of its competitors.

"Are they going to be in business in two years, selling so cheaply?" said Alan Cohen, senior director of product management in Ciscos wireless networking business unit. Cohen joined the company when Cisco acquired Wi-Fi hardware startup Airespace Inc. in January, which is how Cisco acquired the mesh technology used in the 1500.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about the effects of the Cisco-Airespace deal on the Wi-Fi sector.

Ciscos initial mesh focus will be municipal wireless deployments, but the company is looking to add mesh capabilities to some of its indoor enterprise access points, too, Cohen said. Existing mesh networking players say they see a fair amount of demand for mesh products from corporate customers.

"Any kind of enterprise that has a need for broadband connectivity in a hard-to-cover area, a mesh makes a lot of sense for them," Whitton said, adding that Nortel has been selling mesh networking hardware for more than a year. "This one place was an open-pit iron mine and they couldnt run wires because the earth movers had pounded down the iron so hard."

Nortel, for its part, plans to add mesh capabilities to its WiMax products, which offer long-range wireless connectivity between clients and base stations. These are due out later next year, Whitton said.

Mesh startup Strix Systems Inc. has WiMax integration plans for mesh, too, according to company officials in Calabasas, Calif.

Cisco is also investigating WiMax. "I could easily see WiMax being the backhaul for [mesh,]" Cohen said. "Well take advantage of any RF technology that makes sense."

Separately, Cisco last week unveiled two additions to its enterprise networking portfolio, which give wireless capabilities to Cisco switches and routers.

The WiSM (Wireless Service Module) is a blade for the Catalyst 6500 that includes the capabilities of a high-end wireless LAN controller. The blade can support 300 access points, but a Cat 6500 can support five WiSMs, meaning support for up to 1,500 lightweight access points per chassis.

The Wireless LAN Controller Module, meanwhile, is made for Ciscos Integrated Services Router. It supports up to six lightweight access points.

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