Mesh Without Wires

March 11, 2010

The Many Interpretations of ‘Wireless Mesh’

IWCE logoIt was interesting, albeit a bit awkward, to be on the same panel at the IWCE conference with one of our major competitor (click on the session description for speakers to find out who it was). But we managed to remain civil and deliver our respective presentations without major barbs or uncomfortable moments. But my take-away from listening to the presentations, including by Eye3Data and Incident Communications Solutions (ICS), is that there exist many interpretations and definitions of ‘mesh.’

In our competitor’s view, mesh is based on “Mesh APs (access points)” – with some of the radios used for access and some used for mesh backhaul. Essentially, “mesh and access [are] combined in the same access point.” Mesh is defined as “decentralized, self-forming fixed mobile access networks employing standards-based Wi-Fi technology.”  Mesh is “omni-directional,” meaning the devices use omni-directional antennas. The limitations in video, according to the company, is that it’s difficult to scale as the meshes grow larger, the overhead becomes too much for the mesh to manage. (Note that the text in quotation marks is from the print-out of the presentation, the rest is quoting from memory.)

As I listed to this approach, it was apparent how different it is from Firetide’s. Consider these points:

  • While Firetide (as other mesh providers) uses 802.11 radios, the communications within the mesh are not Wi-Fi compliant, and instead apply changes to the radio MAC along with proprietary routing protocol, creating a virtual distributed wireless Ethernet switch. This  architecture enables lower overhead, extra security of data – through encapsulation, – high throughput, and ability to handle multicast traffic.
  • Firetide mesh is not limited to omni-directional communications. You have the flexibility to deploy any antennas that are best suited for the project: omni-directional, directional and specialized, such as yagis.
  • Scale is not an issue for Firetide. The best practice for video deployments is to utilize a multi-mesh design, then interconnecting the meshes via wired or wireless (mesh) connection. With Firetide’s architecture, these interconnected meshes still act as a single distributed wireless Ethernet switch, maintaining a single IP address and delivering the same speed and efficiency, compared to single mesh.
  • Lastly, another difference between Firetide’s and most other Wi-Fi mesh is Firetide’s modular form factor: access points are not integrated into our mesh nodes, but come as separate units. The rationale being that many of applications for Firetide mesh do not require APs at all, so if the units were integrated the customer would pay for hardware they do not need. When Wi-Fi access is part of the project, the modular design allows the customers to put mesh nodes higher up (for better line of sight) and the access points closer to the ground, where the users are.

That said, both approaches to mesh are valid – but it all depends on the application. If your primary application is low-bandwidth data and/or you need to provide Wi-Fi access to your users, the “all-in-one” design employed by most mesh providers makes sense. AP-and-backhaul in one box and built-in omni-directional antennas simplify installations and make the gear look less obtrusive(Edited 3/17/20: Strike “less obtrusive”: I saw this particular mesh AP exhibited at IWCE and it’s massive, standing at about 1 ft and weighing in at 39 lb.) On the other hand, this gear is purpose-built for one application – Wi-Fi data – and adding on VoIP or video is a challenge for many of these providers (see John Honivich’s comment to the “Mesh and Mobility” post).

The confusion comes when the term ‘mesh’ is used to describe any type of a mesh topology, regardless of whether it uses Mesh APs, Wi-Fi mesh or what we define as “infrastructure mesh,” essentially L2 mesh with L3 routing within it.

On an interesting side note, I was impressed how far Firetide has come in the industry. All three of the other presenters mentioned Firetide in their presentations:

  • ICS is a big reseller of AgileMesh, an OEM partner of Firetide. AgileMesh provides rapidly deployable video surveillance gear, which utilizes Firetide mesh for communications, so Firetide came up in the presentation from ICS on tactical wireless video surveillance.
  • Eye3Data works with many transit, transportation and law enforcement agencies to provide mobile video surveillance. Right in their presentation, they put a slide on the project they are a proposing for a police department: wireless offload of video recordings from police cruisers, utilizing Firetide’s mesh.

I expected that Axis would perhaps acknowledge Firetide in their presentation, given that they are a long-term partner of ours. But the other two references came as a complete surprise.

If you are at the IWCE conference, please check out the other session I’ll be speaking at: Killer Apps in Wireless; Friday March 12 10 am – 12 noon. I will be discussing mobile, real-time wireless video surveillance for transportation, industrial operations and law enforcement. (For notes from the Killer Apps session, see my post “Defining Mobile Video.”)

1 Comment »

  1. It was nice to see Firetide at ISC West again this year. There has definitely been several competitors joining the video surveillance market. The one thing Firetide has done well has been that the company has been early adopters to market and cater to the video market place. While other wireless mesh companies were primarily focused on municipal Wi-Fi, Firetide broke ranks and saw the need or a wireless solution for video. I’ll be interested to see the performance of some of the newer platforms that Firetide is working on to stay ahead of its competitors in the video space.

    Comment by Joe Wargo — April 7, 2010 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

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