Meshing With MeshNetworks

A Motorola acquisition brings benefits to mesh networking technology but alarms critics

by / March 9, 2005
The December 2004 finalization of Motorola's acquisition of MeshNetworks sparked a heated debate over what the merger means for the evolution of mesh networking technology.

The two companies aren't exactly strangers. Motorola and MeshNetworks have an existing agreement through which Motorola licenses MeshNetworks software for 802.11 WLANs, and distributes the MeshNetworks Enabled Architecture product line through direct sales and a reseller network. Motorola Ventures, the investment arm of Motorola, was also an investor in MeshNetworks.

Though there is little dispute that Motorola will raise the profile of wireless mesh technology, critics charge that its dominance in the area could push the technology away from an open standards approach -- just the opposite of what's beneficial to public safety agencies.

MeshNetworks was active in the local government market and scored two well publicized coups in 2004. It installed a high-speed wireless network in Medford, Ore., and after a successful trial with the Las Vegas Traffic Engineering Division, installed a similar network in Las Vegas. The company also implemented systems in Garland, Texas, and Florence, Italy, according to news reports in early 2004.

MeshNetworks' technology is actually privatization of technology developed for the military by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Department of Defense, wanting wireless communications systems that could be instantly deployed by military units, asked DARPA to develop mobile, ad hoc communications networks for the battlefield.

Closing the Door?
Michael Howse, president of PacketHop, a competitor of the former MeshNetworks and member of the 4.9 GHz Open Standards Coalition, expressed concern that Motorola will dominate the market and develop a proprietary approach that will stifle interoperability.

"Motorola's acquisition of MeshNetworks validates the concepts of mobile mesh and ad hoc networking, and its relevance to the market," Howse said. "The second thing it validates is Motorola's business strategy, which is to maintain a proprietary approach in supplying equipment, initially, to the first responder and homeland security markets."

Gregory Ballentine, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said his organization doesn't comment on specific industry acquisitions but supports a non-proprietary approach to hardware and software platforms.

"In general, we believe public safety is best served by open architecture systems that adhere to industry performance standards," Ballentine said.

One thing is certain: Motorola's decision to pursue mesh networking as a business line will raise the technology's profile. The company's marketing budget will clearly help, but Motorola is no stranger to the public safety market.

"You're going to see mesh networking deployed and utilized at a far more rapid rate now that it's in a Motorola portfolio," said Rick Rotondo, formerly of MeshNetworks and now marketing director for Motorola. "[Motorola] basically had a sales channel, a distribution channel and a support channel that, quite frankly, in a hundred years we could never duplicate.

"Obviously Motorola saw mesh networking as the future of mobile broadband communications, especially for public safety, where you need a self-forming, self-healing network," Rotondo said. "There are a lot of advantages to it. It's a distributed network, and it's very hard to attack it since there's no central tower or anything like that."

In countering the perception that Motorola will put the clamps on the mesh networking market, Rotondo said Motorola's system is IP-based and works with any IP-based system, arguing further that the open standards label is a misnomer since no vendors in the market offer true, open standards-based mesh-networking technology.

"Every single company doing mesh networking is using a proprietary solution today," he said. "There's not a single company out there that is open. Now what they'll say is 'We're based on 802.11, so we're open.' There is not a mesh-enabled Wi-Fi access point or wireless router out there that works with any other vendors' wireless access point or wireless router."

A Standard Disagreement
Critics contend Motorola has a history of developing proprietary systems that don't mesh with other vendors' technology. Public safety agencies need flexibility to choose systems that fit their needs, they say, and a dependence on Motorola would limit flexibility.

The best way to solve the problem is by creating interoperability standards.

"Motorola and MeshNetworks have been extremely active in the standards bodies having to do with this technology," Rotondo said, countering that Motorola is as standards-based as it gets.

PacketHop's Howse said Motorola hasn't exactly pushed for open standards, despite participating in various standards organizations.

"I expect Motorola to participate in [standards bodies], but in terms of the current business strategy, it's not really to embrace open standards at all," Howse said. "Motorola has traditionally been a stovepipe operator with its voice equipment. That's led to a lot of the problems we have today with a lack of interoperability with first responders."

Further, Howse said that when the 4.9 GHz Open Standards Coalition was being founded, Motorola fought it tooth and nail.

"We embraced 802.11-style broadband networking in the 4.9 band so public safety can get the benefits of all that innovation happening with 802.11," Howse said. "The opposition to that coalition was Motorola."

Mario DeRango, Motorola's director of Growth Technologies, said the Telecommunications Industry Association formed the TR-8.8 committee to address open standards, and that committee has originated public safety standards for decades. Motorola is a chair on that committee.

The TR-8.8 committee defines standards for broadband interoperability in the 4.9 GHz band, which the FCC allocated to public safety and where the technology will be standardized.

"There are vendors -- Nortel, M/A-COM -- [and] there are customers -- the FBI, New York [state], Georgia -- that all participate in [the TR-8.8 committee]," DeRango said. "I don't know why that's not sufficient as an open standards body."

Howse said the only real standards organizations that exist in the technology realm are the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the News Industry Text Format bodies.

"Anything else is either kind of created standards by the vendors, or not as accepted by the engineering community," he said. "That's the message here -- the real problem in homeland security first responder communications is the lack of interoperability and interoperability between vendors, and that's because there are no standards."

That's where there is agreement.

"The vendors I don't think will interoperate until this 802.11 standard comes along," Rotondo said. "Particularly because most companies doing mesh networks these days are small."

Rotondo explained that small companies would rather avoid a mesh-networking standard because once it becomes a commodity, they wouldn't be able to compete with the big boys like Nortel, Motorola and Cisco. MeshNetworks "saw the writing on the wall," he said.

DeRango said all customers want interoperability.

"If you look at the RFPs on the street from different governments, they really want a high-performance, robust, high-reliability type of a solution for their meshes," he said. "We're committed to that, and making sure it is an open standard, because all the customers want interoperability."

Customer Concerns
The merger hasn't created any adverse impact to date in Medford, Ore., said Doug Townsend, the city's technology services director, adding that customer service for MeshNetworks products through Viasys Corp. has been good so far.

"I hope Motorola will continue to allow us to work with Viasys," Townsend said, adding that a merger could bode well for future innovation. "I suspect Motorola engineers will complement the skills of MeshNetworks' engineers to enhance MeshNetworks' product line."

Townsend said he is concerned, however, that pricing will increase under Motorola.

"Motorola certainly brings a wealth of public safety experience to the table," he said. "But they also have a reputation for charging handsomely for their products."

The city is negotiating to extend its wireless network, he said, and the pricing has, so far, remained as it was before the December 2004 acquisition.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor