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December 12, 2006

PacketHop specs out European market potential

Mobile mesh technology developer PacketHop Inc is currently spec-ing out the market for its products in Europe, with one of the challenges it faces being that frequency allocation differs by country, unlike the monolithic situation in the US.

By CBR Staff Writer

The Redwood City, California-based start-up offers mesh nodes that can be deployed on an ad hoc basis, differentiating its technology by the fact that they also take advantage of fixed infrastructure for backhaul where it is available. We’re really a hybrid of fixed and ad hoc mesh, said Kevin Payne, its director of corporate marketing.

The core networking technology is called DynaMesh and is licensed from Stanford Research Institute (SRI), an organization that is loosely affiliated with the university of the same name. It was developed initially for battlefield communications, the spin-off being done in order to pursue commercial applications. In addition to the infrastructure, PacketHop also developed four applications which can run on its kit without the need for a server to house them or a backhaul connection to the internet. These four specially engineered apps are:

– multicast video, whereby video can be streamed to pre-configured subscribers to the information;

– mapping and GPS positioning;

– whiteboarding, which enables, for instance, someone in a coordinating role to draw arrows or circle points on a map to show other team members where to go, and

– instant messaging, with the ability to tie in with the maps and whiteboards.

The company launched the first version of its PacketHop Communications System in August 2005, offering connectivity in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, both of which are free and unlicensed in the US, and targeted initially the public safety market.

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In version 2.0, launched in August this year, it added the 4.9GHz band, which is licensed specifically for public safety Stateside, as well as support for cellular data connectivity. That means someone with a data card in a laptop can use it to backhaul traffic from the mesh, Payne explained.

Most recently, PacketHop expanded its target market from public safety to municipal services, essentially complementing, or enhancing as it characterizes it, fixed municipal WiFi networks. If you have a Grid of 2.4GHz fixed nodes you’ll typically space them at between 50ft and 500ft distances from one another, Payne began, but you’ll face obstacles like buildings, rain and even leaves.

To address such issues, he went on, you can add mobile nodes mounted on municipal vehicles, with the added benefit that, since you’ll shorten the hops between nodes in this way, there will be less dissipation of the signal and, as a result, you’ll increase the bandwidth. This overlaid mesh network can also offer benefits in terms of security, Payne argued, in that it can enable video surveillance on bus lines and so on.

PacketHop also sees applications for mobile mesh in the enterprise, and indeed, a third target area mentioned in its marketing is mobile workgroups, though Payne admitted that, at the moment, there is no specific product offering for this area. Nonetheless, there have already been expressions of interest from parties such as mining companies and refineries that want to throw up ad hoc meshes around their sites. There may also be uses in office environments where you could deploy mobile mesh nodes on laptops as an overlay to enhance in-building coverage, though clearly we’d need to smooth potential concerns from systems admins, he went on.

As for competition, Payne said PacketHop really sees only Motorola Inc with its MotoMesh offering, the result of its acquisition of MeshNetworks, the big difference being firstly, that it is proprietary rather than standards-based and, second, that it doesn’t offer the serverless apps like we do. Cisco also has a multi-radio wireless networking offering, which it launched at the back end of last year, he acknowledged, but argued that so far his company hasn’t seen them in the market.

Payne said the company offers a $50,000 bundle of ten nodes, which ship with the serverless apps, and server software called System Management Center, which is used for pre-configuring the network rather than ongoing management. You only need to use it again whenever you update the network configuration.

In terms of doing business in Europe, Payne said PacketHop as a small company will rely on partners, and is talking to potential systems integration partners in the region for this purpose. He acknowledged that another of the challenges it will face, however, is the disparate nature of radio spectrum allocation across the Old Continent, in that the EU still doesn’t have the power to decide centrally on which bands should be used for which purposes.

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