Mountains of Mesh Help One Ski Town

By Gerry Blackwell

November 06, 2006

After months on the down-low, MeshDynamics customers announce how third-gen mesh helps them, even in climates like New Mexico's Rocky Mountains.

MeshDynamics, a relative newcomer to the Wi-Fi mesh network equipment market, made a splash recently – albeit a small one – when it announced its first commercial deployment, a 13-node network for Enchanted Circle Communications in tiny Red River, New Mexico, a ski resort. Enchanted Circle installed the network a year ago.

It wasn’t so much the size of the deployment that made it such a breakthrough for MeshDynamics as the circumstances under which it came about. Enchanted Circle co-owner Keith Hall tried out two other mesh network systems first, from Cisco Systems and AirMatrix. Neither worked as advertised. Then he hit paydirt with MeshDynamics.

The AirMatrix system uses a first-generation, single-radio architecture. Hall found performance degraded over multiple hops, even in indoor testing. AirMatrix also wanted him to use its own back-end billing system, which would be shared with other users. Hall was concerned about security, and wanted to run a billing system of his own choosing on his own servers. “It was a high price to pay,” he says of the AirMatrix restriction. He stuck with the equipment for about 40 days, then returned it.

Cisco was recommended by his partner, operator of a Dell and Cisco repair business in nearby Taos. “Less than 30 days later, even he said we needed to look for something else,” Hall recounts. The Cisco equipment also didn’t come up to snuff, and it went back too.

MeshDynamics vice president of sales and marketing Byron Henderson says his company’s technology, on which it has eight patents pending, is the first self-configuring, third-generation Wi-Fi mesh networking system on the market.

First-generation systems, like those from AirMatrix and Tropos, featured one radio for both inter-node communication and client access. Henderson compares the resulting bandwidth contention to “salmon fighting upstream against hungry bears – there was a lot of delay and jitter.” Second-generation systems feature one radio for mesh communications and one for client access. But there are still contention issues.

The MeshDynamics system uses access points with multiple antennas and radios – either multiple physical radios or multiple “logical” radios. The company has applied for a patent on its logical radio technique. It makes a single radio function as if it were multiple radios “based on the characteristics of when it sends and when it receives,” Henderson says.

“The result is there’s much more bandwidth in the node-to-node link and much lower jitter and delay -- that’s why [Enchanted Circle’s Hall] had to toss out the first couple of products he tried,” Henderson says. “He wasn’t able to the get the performance he needed because of the jitter built up [over multiple node hops].”

The MeshDynamics nodes also include what Henderson refers to as a “radio robot.” They automatically find each other, automatically selecting channels and routes, and they do this on a dynamic basis, instantly changing network configurations in real time to accommodate changing conditions. This is a feature of many first- and second-generation systems, Henderson says, but other available third-generation systems require manual network design and setup.

The other key differentiator for MeshDynamics, Henderson says, is that the company uses mostly off-the-shelf hardware components. “Some of our competitors do a lot of their own hardware development – a lot of smart development in many cases. But it means they become a sort of market of one for their hardware and they can’t take advantage of anyone’s economies of scale.”

MeshDynamics prices its products competitively, but Henderson admits he can’t provide apples-to-apples comparisons. The company’s real-world prices are similar to list prices from first-generation mesh network vendors. And at $2,000 to $4,000 per node, they’re quite a bit less than list prices from other third-generation vendors such as BelAir Networks. BelAir’s list prices are between $5,000 and $10,000, he says.

Hall is slightly evasive about what he paid, but says a comparable 10-node network from MeshDynamics would cost about $40,000.

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