Cisco Joins Mesh Parade

Aironet 1500 access point can be deployed outdoors.

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

As expected, the networking company launched the Aironet 1500 Series access point. Designed for outdoor deployments, the 1500 Series can automatically set up and operate within a mesh network. It also uses a proprietary protocol that lets the access point dynamically pick the best data path, 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 with Dayton, Ohio, and Lebanon, Ore. The company also is teaming with Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Global Services to offer outdoor wireless networking services, officials said.

Several companies already offer wireless mesh products, including hardware makers Nortel Networks Ltd. and Motorola Inc. and several smaller mesh specialists such as Tropos Networks Inc. and BelAir Networks Inc. 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 Wi-Fi deployment in Philadelphia. Strix Systems Inc. is providing equipment for a nationwide mesh deployment in Macedonia.

But as has been the case with other networking technology, Ciscos unhurried commitment may indicate a tipping point. And some customers prefer to go with a large company that has a large support staff.

"Our main objective when selecting a hardware vendor was to find a solution that worked from a company that could appropriately support the product," said Tom Oliver, information services manager for the city of Lebanon. "Although the Cisco product may not be the first to market, we felt it was the best candidate even as a beta when we began testing in the spring."

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.

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.

"[For] any kind of enterprise that has a need for broadband connectivity in a hard-to-cover area, a mesh makes a lot of sense," said Mark Whitton, general manager of mesh networking at Nortel Networks, in Richardson, Texas, which 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 next year, Whitton said.