Laying Out the Breadcrumbs

By Adam Stone

August 16, 2005

Rajant’s wireless equipment, designed with the military in mind but used for disasters and conventions as well, uses mesh topology without needing a centralized node.

What's the point of being wireless if you aren't going to be mobile? Sure, you can sit in Starbucks with your laptop and call yourself a 'mobile' worker, but some in the Wi-Fi community are unrolling LANs that take mobility to a whole new level.

Based in Wayne, Pa., Rajant has engineered a set of components that can generate ad hoc, self-forming networks under the most trying conditions. Their Web site includes images of helicopters, armed personnel carriers and soldiers in bright green fatigues. Guess who their target market might be?

"The military has been very receptive," says Rajant president Jim Washington. "They have a need [for portable networks that deploy quickly and easily]. They know they have a need, and when they see a solution that works for them, they make an honest effort to implement that solution."

The solutions here go by the name of Breadcrumbs, an allusion to Hansel and Gretel's attempts to guide themselves through the woods. Unlike that hapless pair, Washington says, users of these Breadcrumbs will find their path illuminated by connectivity that is easy to achieve and manage.

Each node in the network comes in a rugged black box that weighs just over two pounds. Placed in buildings, in trucks or on the ground, the nodes can support a network over an area of 10 miles or more. The network “self-heals,” meaning that a loss of power or function in one node won't take down the rest of the network.

If this sounds like the mesh deployments that have captured industry attention in recent months, you're almost right. The difference here, Washington says, is that while most mesh networks require a central node or hub through which the signal is processed, Breadcrumbs all talk to one another without reference to a central node.

The company has had a number of high-profile deployments of its product in recent months. Following the disastrous December tsunami, Rajant sent employees and equipment to Phuket, Thailand to establish wireless networks in a refugee camp for use by refugees and relief coordinators. Users of the network, which could support up to 70 users at a time, included the Royal Thai Army, refugees and non-governmental relief agencies.

Closer to home, the U.S. Army has been toying with the technology since 2004. Breadcrumbs have been field-tested by the 3rd Infantry Division and by Special Operations forces in the past few months.

Even as these deployments gain public attention, the company has continued to refine its product, both through its own development efforts and through partnerships with others in the Wi-Fi arena.

On the security front, for instance, Rajant maintains a close cooperative arrangement with Fortress Technologies. Not only does Fortress have the security technology in hand, it also has the clout to break into Rajant's target markets.

"In the military in particular you have to have security certification to sell a product," says John Dow, vice president of business development at Fortress. "Those were things we were able to bring to the table."

With security clearance to ensure credibility, Rajant has gone to the military marketplace through the front door, marketing directly to military purchasers through a sales force that includes retired personnel, many of whom have an intimate familiarity with the sometimes labyrinthine processes of military procurement.

The company would like to break into the public safety market as well. Washington envisions ad hoc networks as an ideal tool for first responders in emergency situations. To gain a foothold, the company has teamed with resellers such as Anvil Technologies and Applied Marine Technology, Inc..

But the public safety market has been a challenge so far. "They see it and they go, 'Wow! This is cool…but do you have the exact processes, the devices and the software that aid in situational awareness, that will facilitate quicker responses?'" Washington says. In the case of many of these more specific solutions, he explains, "those things are still in development."

While Washington views resellers as a cost-effective avenue into certain markets, he also is realistic about the possibilities.

His is a small company, not widely known. Plus, sales cycles in the public sector tend to run slow, which can make it hard for a reseller to bank the kind of numbers it needs to justify its efforts, at least in the short term.

As a result, "it can be hard to find a reseller than can maintain the focus of a fairly long-term sales cycle," Washington says. "After a conversation or two – we're all adults – we can typically tell if this is going to be a good fit."

Meanwhile, Rajant continues to chip away, building awareness in the marketplace by sharing success stories, demonstrating its technology at industry events, and making public safety officials aware of funding that may be available at the state and local levels in support of technology upgrades.

These things take time, but the waiting can be made easier with a couple of high-profile wins. Rajant, for instance, deployed networks at the Kentucky Derby, and worked with officials in New York and New Jersey to scatter Breadcrumbs during the Republican National Convention.

With high-profile ventures like these, Washington suggests, it is only a matter of time before the company starts to gain wider recognition.

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