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."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor