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WiMAX Makes a Mesh

The world is getting used to Wi-Fi. A few years ago, the idea of a Wi-Fi hot spot seemed pretty cool, especially as they were still few and far between. The idea of Wi-Fi access in the consumer home, let alone the local coffee shop or city park, was enough of a rarity that, had anyone had the thought, there wouldn't have been a point in trying to link those hot spots together for greater continuous coverage.

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However, within the last few years — and in less than a decade after Wi-Fi debuted as a commercial technology — the concept of Wi-Fi mesh network architectures has gained quite a following. In a mesh, dozens or more Wi-Fi access points are linked together and interconnected in an expansive topology to cover an area as large as a small town or a metroplex, though a mesh consisting of hundreds or thousands of access points could be used to provide coverage to even a large city. The mesh network also is able to act as its own backhaul mechanism, and in some cases, automatic routing throughout the mesh helps to keep service disruptions confined to a minimum area.

Mesh architectures originally seemed most viable for remote or topographically challenging communities that were difficult to reach with other forms of broadband access.

“We have deployed mesh in pretty much the toughest environment possible for a network — the foothills of the Sierra Nevada,” said Larry Bowman, co-founder and partner in SkyWest Broadband, a wireless ISP (WISP). “We're in a place that's hard to serve with anything else.”

But, as Wi-Fi hot spots have evolved and have become more frequent in a variety of locations — not only private residences, but also retail locations, public spaces, office buildings, stadiums and other venues — mesh networks subsequently have evolved to become the architectures of choice for the rapidly increasing number of municipal wireless networks.

“The places where we have seen hot spots are moving to become hot zones,” said Norm Bogen, senior analyst at InStat. “And it's not just municipalities or their public-safety agencies that are driving this trend. The WISPs are driving it, too.” Bogen said telcos also will play a role. “All of the RBOCs are watching this trend with mesh technology, and they will want to do something in a mesh architecture,” he said.

Although municipal governments often are the catalysts behind municipal wireless network projects, those administrations usually are not looking to dictate a specific kind of network design. It is the ISPs, other service providers or mesh vendors that make the decision to use a mesh architecture.

Though most municipal Wi-Fi mesh networks are still in their infancy, usage trends will force these architectures to evolve in different ways as they mature. In many early cases, municipal mesh networks have been constructed with the primary purpose of lending operational efficiency to distributed municipal government offices and functions.

But Chuck Haas, co-founder and CEO of MetroFi, a company that specializes in building, operating and managing networks for municipalities, said these networks will also rapidly evolve to become “mixed-use” networks, supporting both the large enterprise-like needs of a municipal government as well as the citizens of that municipality.

“You see cities wanting to build networks for their own operational benefits but then wanting to open it to public use,” Haas said.

A municipal Wi-Fi mesh network can support a wide variety of high-bandwidth applications, and though Internet access might be the predominant application right now, voice, video conferencing and other kinds of business and entertainment applications are likely to become more common, especially as these kinds of networks launch in major cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco.

At the same time, citizens wanting to use a municipality's public mesh network will bring a greater influx of traffic onto the network, and the larger amount of traffic combined with the commonality of richer applications will create a need for better backhaul technology in areas where there previously wasn't much need for it.

That's where WiMAX will come into play, and with the first WiMAX Forum-certified products based on the 802.16-2004 standard coming to market late this year and throughout next year, the timing couldn't be better.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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