Tropos expands municipal wireless options

Tropos Networks Inc., which has made its mark in municipal Wi-Fi infrastructure, is staking a claim on even more advanced networks.

On Thursday, the company is set to launch the first of a series of wireless mesh routers with more than one radio. The Tropos 5320 is an IEEE 802.11a/b/g outdoor router that can use one flavor of Wi-Fi for client Internet access and the other for the "backhaul" connection to a mesh of other wireless routers.

Mesh networks can be used for wireless LAN coverage over a large area without the need for wired broadband (backhaul) from each wireless base station. Instead, the base stations pass the traffic among one another to reach a smaller number of wired links.

Tropos so far has sold mesh routers with just one radio for both client access and backhaul. That has landed Tropos behind some competitors in technology terms, but the Sunnyvale, California, company has led the market for municipal Wi-Fi gear anyway, probably because of cost, said IDC analyst Godfrey Chua. The citywide wireless Internet services so far have been aimed at the low-end and midrange consumer markets, he said.

The new routers may incorporate WiMax metropolitan-area wireless and even 3G (third-generation mobile data) in addition to Wi-Fi, said Bert Williams, senior director of marketing. They will be able to figure out the highest-performing combination of links within the mesh at a given time, according to Tropos.

More models will follow the 5320 over the next year and will incorporate other technologies, including WiMax and MIMO (multiple in-multiple out) multi-antenna wireless LAN, Williams said. Future products could have EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) 3G capability, he said.

Williams compared the new routers to traditional wired routers with multiple types of physical ports. Each model will be designed with a set configuration of radios. However, through the Tropos Metro Wireless Development program also set to be announced, service providers and others will be able to arrange for custom radio interfaces to be added to Tropos routers.

Competitors such as Strix Systems Inc. and BelAir Networks Inc. already sell routers with more than one radio, IDC's Chua said. He expects Tropos's rivals also to add technologies such as WiMax to their products.

Municipal wireless Internet services now being planned and deployed by companies such as EarthLink Inc. are suited mainly to capture the millions of U.S. consumers still using dial-up, Chua said. Wi-Fi uses unlicensed radio spectrum and is susceptible to interference. Down the road, service providers may look to more lucrative offerings such as location-based services, VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol), and advanced applications for enterprises and local government. Mixed networks with some combination of Wi-Fi, WiMax, MIMO and 3G could provide the reliability and quality of service needed for those applications if devices were able to shift to the best network, he said.

The Tropos 5320 will be generally available in October. The cost per square mile of a network of 5320s will be about 30 percent higher than for the current 5210 model, which costs about US$80,000 to $100,000 per square mile.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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