Where mesh goes from here
Motorola’s recent move to acquire mesh networking firm MeshNetworks has made waves in the communications industry. But competitors don’t sound too concerned about getting left behind. For now, the large wireless communications firms that compete with Motorola in the public-safety market aren’t worrying out loud that the Motorola/Mesh combination might affect their position.
“We don’t see any short-term impact of that acquisition on the public-safety market space,” said Dennis Martinez, vice president of technology in the wireless systems business unit of M/A-COM in Lowell, Mass. “In the longer term, [the MeshNetworks technology] will probably be one of the technologies that’s considered for use and for standardization, although that has not happened yet.”
Except for a few early adopters, most public-safety and homeland security agencies won’t implement an emerging technology such as mesh networking until it has passed through a standards-making process, Martinez said. Also, customers today are mainly interested in using wireless broadband networks for traditional wide area computing applications, such as filing reports and accessing databases, not to establish communications networks on the fly, he said. “With ad hoc networking, it’s not obvious to people yet how to use it.”
Ralf Borgardt, vertical markets manager at EFJohnson in Washington, said Motorola’s move doesn’t change the playing field for his company because its primary focus is developing “mission-critical digital voice solutions and data only to the point it is defined in existing standards.”
Motorola’s foray into mesh networking creates “no resulting pressure toward the providers of voice communication,” Borgardt said. “Mesh does not have the ability to replace a mission-critical, wide area voice network and may serve as a backup only. There are a number of smaller wireless data players that also offer good solutions.”
To some of those small players, Motorola’s acquisition appears more important than it does to the large companies. Motorola’s purchase “validates the idea of mobile mesh and mobile ad hoc networking,” said Michael Howse, CEO of Packet-Hop in Belmont, Calif. PacketHop offers software-based mesh networking technology that converts radios from various manufacturers into nodes on a mobile ad hoc network; it also develops applications to run on those networks.
Motorola’s endorsement of mesh technology has accelerated interest among public-safety customers, said Dave Gelvin, president and CEO of Sensoria, a San Diego-based developer of mesh networking systems. Not long ago, users in that market shied away from the mesh concept, calling it an immature and risky technology, he said.
“Now, with Motorola endorsing it, I think they’re much more serious about moving from a mild interest to doing pilots and actually deploying it,” he said. “That’s been a huge benefit to us, in that our discussions with public-safety organizations have actually accelerated since the Mesh acquisition.”
On the downside, “Motorola is a formidable competitor,” Gelvin said.
But not so formidable if you believe that customers want a standards-based technology that allows them to work with any hardware they want, according to Howse. The Motorola/MeshNetworks product uses proprietary radio and routing protocols.
The move to acquire MeshNetworks reinforces Motorola’s business strategy, Howse said.
“Motorola builds proprietary systems,” so customers who work with them must buy all Motorola components, he said. As for mesh networking, “they have a proprietary radio, proprietary routing, and really for MeshNetworks to work, you have to buy all MeshNetworks equipment.”
PacketHop, by contrast, has based its product on open networking standards, he said. And, Howse added, the mesh networking concept was already gaining ground without Motorola’s approval. Although it hasn’t been widely adopted, the technology is getting a lot of attention in the industry press. As leaders in public-safety communications start to embrace it, others will follow, he said. “I think a year and a half or two years from now, it’s going to be mainstream.”
As an industry-changing event, Motorola’s acquisition of technology for establishing wireless broadband networks on the fly isn’t nearly as important as the FCC’s allocation of spectrum in the 4.9 GHz band for public-safety broadband, Martinez said. Motorola’s meshing technology “may or may not be part of a 4.9 GHz public-safety solution,” he said. “What I can safely say today is that there is no proposal on the table at present for the use of mesh networking technology” in the public-safety broadband standards-making process.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is working on an initiative, dubbed 802.11s, to standardize certain elements of fixed mesh networking, Howse said. These would apply to mesh networks that relay data via radio links installed at fixed locations but not those that use nodes installed in mobile or portable devices.
“I do expect standards will ultimately commoditize fixed mesh networking,” but it’s not clear what role standards will play in the development of mobile mesh networks, he said.
Nor is it clear how a giant such as Motorola, by acquiring a proprietary mesh technology, might influence future efforts to create standards in this area.
“Right now, because you don’t have a standard, all the products are basically proprietary,” even those based on open standards such as 802.11, said Dan Benjamin, senior analyst at ABI Research. “As open as they may be, you’d still be talking about trying to develop into a standard where you don’t necessarily have other products that are available to you, other than from the vendor you originally purchased your product from. People aren’t talking about standards adoption for this for another couple of years.”
If other mobile communications companies plan to follow Motorola’s lead and acquire mesh networking capabilities of their own, they’re not revealing their intentions.
“Right now, there might be an advantage to just wait and see what happens with Motorola,” Benjamin said.
Communications vendors might not want to lock themselves into a relationship with one mesh networking partner early in the game and risk choosing the wrong one, Benjamin said.
“At this point, because there is no standard, the flexibility of a licensing agreement, as opposed to the great initial outlay to acquire a company, might actually benefit some of the competitors,” he said.
Borgardt at EFJohnson wouldn’t say if his company is contemplating an acquisition. Neither would Martinez point to possible alliances or acquisitions at M/A-COM. “We have very active dialogue with many companies, and some are in that market space of mesh technologies,” as well as internal activities in that area, he said. “We really can’t comment about any acquisition at this point. But we can say we are very active in the development of those technologies.”
Sensoria isn’t focusing on the prospect of a merger with a larger company, but “I think it is probably something that every company has at least on their list of things to consider,” said Gelvin. Sensoria and small other companies that remain in the field are traditionally venture-backed firms, “and so I think there’s a desire to get larger before an acquisition is considered,” he said.
In the meantime, if companies like M/A-Com and EFJohnson want to compete with Motorola for mesh networking contracts, Sensoria gains a new opportunity, Gelvin said. “All of Motorola’s traditional competitors are now potential customers for us.”
At PacketHop, Howse said it’s too early to say if an acquisition is in the cards, but cooperation with larger companies is definitely part of his company’s strategy. He points to an agreement with Nortel Networks, announced last August, to jointly market mobile communications solutions to the homeland security market.
“This is just one of many partnerships I have with infrastructure providers,” he said.