Mountains of Mesh Help One Ski Town

MeshDynamics, a relative newcomer to the Wi-Fi mesh network equipment market, made a splash recently – albeit a small one – when it announced its first commercial deployment, a 13-node network for Enchanted Circle Communications in tiny Red River, New Mexico, a ski resort. Enchanted Circle installed the network a year ago.

It wasn’t so much the size of the deployment that made it such a breakthrough for MeshDynamics as the circumstances under which it came about. Enchanted Circle co-owner Keith Hall tried out two other mesh network systems first, from Cisco Systems and AirMatrix. Neither worked as advertised. Then he hit paydirt with MeshDynamics.

The AirMatrix system uses a first-generation, single-radio architecture. Hall found performance degraded over multiple hops, even in indoor testing. AirMatrix also wanted him to use its own back-end billing system, which would be shared with other users. Hall was concerned about security, and wanted to run a billing system of his own choosing on his own servers. “It was a high price to pay,” he says of the AirMatrix restriction. He stuck with the equipment for about 40 days, then returned it.

Cisco was recommended by his partner, operator of a Dell and Cisco repair business in nearby Taos. “Less than 30 days later, even he said we needed to look for something else,” Hall recounts. The Cisco equipment also didn’t come up to snuff, and it went back too.

MeshDynamics vice president of sales and marketing Byron Henderson says his company’s technology, on which it has eight patents pending, is the first self-configuring, third-generation Wi-Fi mesh networking system on the market.

First-generation systems, like those from AirMatrix and Tropos, featured one radio for both inter-node communication and client access. Henderson compares the resulting bandwidth contention to “salmon fighting upstream against hungry bears – there was a lot of delay and jitter.” Second-generation systems feature one radio for mesh communications and one for client access. But there are still contention issues.

The MeshDynamics system uses access points with multiple antennas and radios – either multiple physical radios or multiple “logical” radios. The company has applied for a patent on its logical radio technique. It makes a single radio function as if it were multiple radios “based on the characteristics of when it sends and when it receives,” Henderson says.

“The result is there’s much more bandwidth in the node-to-node link and much lower jitter and delay — that’s why [Enchanted Circle’s Hall] had to toss out the first couple of products he tried,” Henderson says. “He wasn’t able to the get the performance he needed because of the jitter built up [over multiple node hops].”

The MeshDynamics nodes also include what Henderson refers to as a “radio robot.” They automatically find each other, automatically selecting channels and routes, and they do this on a dynamic basis, instantly changing network configurations in real time to accommodate changing conditions. This is a feature of many first- and second-generation systems, Henderson says, but other available third-generation systems require manual network design and setup.

The other key differentiator for MeshDynamics, Henderson says, is that the company uses mostly off-the-shelf hardware components. “Some of our competitors do a lot of their own hardware development – a lot of smart development in many cases. But it means they become a sort of market of one for their hardware and they can’t take advantage of anyone’s economies of scale.”

MeshDynamics prices its products competitively, but Henderson admits he can’t provide apples-to-apples comparisons. The company’s real-world prices are similar to list prices from first-generation mesh network vendors. And at $2,000 to $4,000 per node, they’re quite a bit less than list prices from other third-generation vendors such as BelAir Networks. BelAir’s list prices are between $5,000 and $10,000, he says.

Hall is slightly evasive about what he paid, but says a comparable 10-node network from MeshDynamics would cost about $40,000.

It wasn’t just that the MeshDynamics equipment provided the level of performance Hall wanted. He was also impressed by the company’s commitment to customer service. It provided training at its own facilities and then sent somebody to Red River to help with the installation, all at no charge. “I thought that was pretty cool,” he says.

Red River, in the middle of a national forest and hemmed in by mountains, is about three blocks wide and a mile and a half long. Those features were all network design issues. Although the total area to cover was relatively small, the network had to be stretched out with multi-hop connections at each end. The network today provides 90% coverage of the town. Hall has put omni-directional antennas at most nodes, six-inch dish antennas at some.

The effect of snow on RF propagation was another concern. The MeshDynamics system has now been in place over one winter and proved itself, Hall says. “We had much better throughput when it was snowing than I was expecting.”

Red River attracts year-round visitors, but summer and winter are the busy seasons. Fifteen thousand will likely swell the population over Christmas (in 2000, the census put the year-round population of Red River at 484).

Two years ago, town administrators approached Hall, who also operates a computer consulting firm. They wanted to find some way of giving visitors Internet access so they could “do business as if they were in the office.” Hall immediately began to research and experiment with mesh technology.

Enchanted Circle today offers four levels of service – 256 and 512 Kbps and 1 and 1.5 Mbps, all symmetrical. Some year-round residents take the full 1.5 Mbps service. He also allows monthly customers to bump up their service one or more levels for special projects, then revert to their regular package. Most visitors buy 256 or 512 Kbps service for an hour or five hours. All transactions are by credit card.

There are 60 to 70 monthly subscribers. This summer, the service was attracting “a couple of hundred” users a day, mostly day trippers paying about $5 each. In winter, people tend to stay and buy service for longer.

Enchanted Circle even has competition now. A company from Taos, where three providers scrap over a year-round population of just 7,000, has set up in Red River. Hall isn’t too worried, though. He points out that his competitor is using Motorola’s Canopy system, which means it has a higher cost structure.

Enchanted Circle was a good story for MeshDynamics, but it’s just the first of many, Henderson says. The company has about 50 customers. Most have been at the trial stage until fairly recently, but a few, including some quite large deployments in the 500-node range, are close to going public. MeshDynamics expects to announce another muni Wi-Fi customer with a 50-node network within a few weeks. Like Enchanted Circle, it’s ripping out another vendor’s equipment because it couldn’t deliver the required performance.

And there are other applications for which MeshDynamics is finding customers, including homeland security – video surveillance for buildings and along borders, for example. The company’s equipment performs well in any network situation that calls for multi-node hops, Henderson says. It is also finding interest among customers that want to be able to set up temporary networks for events or time-limited projects, and for networking large industrial sites such as mills.

“Muni deployments get the headlines,” Henderson says, “but right now, most of our sales activity is around other applications.”

The company is so far mostly self-funded, and currently isn’t actively seeking investors – although it expects to begin again in a few months when more customers have announced commercial deployments and it has a better story to tell. “We’ve taken much, much less money than our competitors,” Henderson notes. “In the order of 10%, probably. I think we’d be a great investment for somebody.”

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