BelAir: Meshing Quite Nicely

By Gerry Blackwell

October 12, 2004

A talk with the network equipment provider showcases the company's claims to fame and new features of its hardware (Virtual APs anyone?) in comparison to the competition.

Wi-Fi mesh network equipment vendor BelAir Networks has had a lot to say for itself recently. BelAir, which makes outdoor systems for wide area applications, made a flurry of announcements this month—a new version of its core software technology adding important new network functionality and several new and impending deployments, including a city-operated network in Lincoln, Neb., and a resort complex in California.

The company has also waded into a debate about mesh network scalability. "One of the knocks on mesh is that it doesn't deliver capacity," says BelAir vice president of marketing Phil Belanger. "But that's true only for single-radio mesh architectures like Tropos [Networks']." Sounds like fighting words to us.

Backed by a blue-chip cadre of investors, including the T-Mobile Venture Fund that injected $2 million earlier this year, BelAir has developed and refined a patented multi-radio mesh architecture that it claims is unique in the "big Wi-Fi space" and uniquely effective for many applications, including metro-wide coverage and big hotel properties.

The BelAir 200, the device at the heart of the company's "cellular LAN architecture," incorporates a standard point-to-multipoint Wi-Fi radio for access and from one to three 5 GHz point-to-point radios for backhaul. The radios are mounted together in a circular outdoor enclosure with an array of directional antennas around the outside.

In most other Wi-Fi mesh networks, the point-to-multipoint Wi-Fi radios link with each other to create the mesh. In a BelAir network, it's the 5GHz point-to-point radios that create the mesh. BelAir uses low level point-to-point shots in "urban canyon" environments to get around buildings, rather than "blasting through" the buildings, Belanger explains. Each node provides local access with the Wi-Fi radio and connects to neighboring nodes via point-to-point shots.

"It changes the nature of the mesh links—from shared, with contention, to dedicated," Belanger explains.

Because the backhaul links don't have to share capacity among a number of mesh partners, they're more robust and deliver higher capacity—so fewer are needed. It means BelAir can scale up in ways that more conventional Wi-Fi mesh networks cannot, he claims. It also, however, means BelAir networks can't as easily self-configure or self-heal.

There are other costs as well. The BelAir units are more expensive than single units from others such as Tropos. The BelAir 200 units cost between $4,000 and $9,000 each depending on how many 5GHz radios they include.

"That is one way that [Tropos] would compete against us," Belanger says. "They would say their cost per square mile for coverage is lower, which is true. But we say our cost per user is lower than theirs and that in fact it's the lowest. And that's really the point. If you're going to provide ubiquitous wide area coverage, you want to be able to serve a large number of users."

He really means that the cost to provide each user with true broadband connectivity is lowest. Belanger claims that in many metro-wide Wi-Fi mesh deployments using other vendors' equipment—in Tropos' deployments for police and fire services, for example—connectivity is reduced to tens of kilobits per second because capacity is spread so thinly across the coverage area.

The multi-radio approach is not the only technological advantage the company claims. Its outside-in architecture has also given it an edge in the hospitality industry, Belanger says. The BelAir 200 units are always mounted outside, typically on light poles, with the Wi-Fi signal shooting up at towers using directional antenna to provide indoor coverage.

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