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Nortel Explores Mesh

The mesh networking architecture has been around as long as wireless LANs, but has never taken the market by storm. However, in the last few months, mesh -- in which the hardware communicates with each other to create a self-configuring, self-healing set of connections -- has been embraced by startups such as switch vendors (Strix Systems) and companies looking to setup municipal WLANs in downtown areas (Tropos Networks).

One stumbling block they all face however is that they are relative unknowns.

Now, a long established player in the world of wireless is looking to mesh as a solution for large-scale public access (hotspot) deployments. Nortel Networks , which joined the Wi-Fi switch fray a few months ago with its WLAN Security Switch 2250, has announced it is trialing with some unnamed mesh products right now on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and with clients of British Telecommunications (BT).

Nortel's products actually sound very close to what BelAir Networks -- another startup using mesh for potential high-rise WLANs -- is doing. The products will use 802.11b to talk with clients, and within each ruggedized access point, there will be an 802.11a radio that can form a mesh with other access points. Traffic is then routed across the mesh to a product set as a gateway device back to a wired network, or in this case, back to the Internet via a broadband connection.

"You no longer need the broadband to each access point," says Bruce Gustafson, director of strategic marketing for Nortel. "You can set up without engineering the units, as it hunts out nearby access points and creates its own routing table."

"In the end, we think such a setup will save up to 75 percent [in costs]," he says. That includes operating costs, since only one broadband line is needed to serve a much higher density of people in a public space. He says the Nortel solution will be perfect for large hotspots/hotzones like a park or downtown, but also as something temporary that can be taken down after a large event.

Operating costs for many hotspots tend to center on the broadband. One often cited is T-Mobile Hotspots (the providers for access at Starbucks, Borders Books, Kinkos and other sites) because they run a full and expensive T1 line to each location. With the equipment Nortel is building, a handful of venues could all share the same T1 to be more cost effective.

"For the cost of electricity, [other venues] can be part of a coordinated group of hotspots," says Gustafson.

The products will use 802.11a to form a mesh, and each access point will connect to three to four others, maximum. They'll have a mesh range greater than that of the average 802.11a access point because of some "creative intelligence" Nortel has built into the antenna. The company expects that with its beam forming techniques, the access points could be as far as one kilometer from each other. The client side 802.11b, however, is limited to the usual range, which is generally considered to be between 150 and 300 feet.

The initial trial by Nortel is taking place on and around the campus at MIT. Nortel is in fact a founder on the industry consortium that runs the MIT Media Lab. Nortel's close ties with the lab lets them get partake of the lab's "lateral thinking you sometimes can't see in a big corporation ... they led us down the path to this," says Gustafson.

Many MIT buildings, public spaces, and a nearby hotel will be able to use the service starting immediately. BT is trying the equipment in a public hotspot for one of its enterprise customers. Nortel is also running it on their campus in Ottawa, Ontario. They don't expect to have commercial products to announce until sometime in the first half of 2004.