Mesh Standard on the Starting Block

By Eric Griffith

January 16, 2004

Interoperability between mesh networks could someday be a reality as the IEEE wraps its first 802.11 mesh study meeting.

At the interim meeting of the IEEE 802.11 Working Group this week in Vancouver, British Columbia, a study group was formed to begin looking into eventually creating an industry-recognized standard for wireless mesh networking.

This first step is still potentially a long way from the creation of an 802.11 Task Group, which would eventually be assigned to deal with the proposals for the technology behind a standard, not to mention trying to bring consensus between many disparate vendors and individuals in the group.

The first step is simply the formation of a Study Group, which is so early in the process that it doesn't even warrant a new 802.11 letter suffix. (The obvious choice of 802.11m, by the way, is taken; it's used for "maintenance" to previously approved standards.)

Reports are that between 50 to 60 people gathered for this first Study Group meeting and that a chairman has been selected.

Initial reports that a mesh standard might be in the offing surfaced last month with heavyweights Intel and Cisco voicing their support. While the two are likely involved in the study group, other companies currently using mesh networking are quick to point out that this standard will not be monopolized. There was no formal agreement between Intel and Cisco on this topic, in any case.

Rick Rotondo, vice president for technical marketing at MeshNetworks , says his company did a full presentation on creating a mesh IEEE standard back in March 2003. Notes from the interim September 2003 IEEE 802.11 meeting show a motion to approve a mesh task group then was tabled, but notes from the November plenary meeting say they "approved the formation of a study group for 802.11 ESS Mesh."

MeshNetworks has been quiet of late and the majority of the press for the technology has gone to companies like Tropos, BelAir , and FireTide, to name a few, which have all begun to ship products and announce customers. Rotondo says his company will soon be announcing several metro areas using MeshNetwork's technology.

"From the Intel side, we believe mesh as a tech is important across many types of radio technologies, 802.11 being one," says Steve Conner, senior network software engineer at Intel who was at the Vancouver meeting. He feels the standard will have to address three key components: interoperability between vendors (which doesn't exist at all today with any two mesh providers); efficiency of the signal; and security.

Bob Jordan, vice president of marketing for Strix Systems, which makes mesh hardware for the enterprise, hopes the group will first and foremost take customers' operational requirements into consideration. "We want to help the customer" with a standard like this, he says.

It is likely the IEEE will try to encompass both ad hoc/client mesh, where a signal can be extended over multiple hops, and full network/infrastructure mesh, where the self-healing/self-configuring connections are used for the backhaul that serves individual clients.

Where the standard will truly go remains to be seen.

"This is real, real early in the whole process," says Rotondu. "If you're betting now [on a direction], you're strictly gambling. It's way to early to tell anything."

Going by standard time frames for IEEE 802.11 standards groups to finish, don't count on seeing anything defined until sometime in 2005, and it likely won't be finished until 2007.



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