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Start-up wins OK for hopped-up wireless

The FCC OKs MeshNetworks' "hopping" technique for pumping up performance, and pumping down prices, of Wi-Fi-based wireless networks. But is there a market for its product?

A start-up has won federal approval for what it claims is a high-performance, low-cost take on the conventional Wi-Fi-based wireless network. But the rapidly falling cost of common Wi-Fi setups could undermine the company's plans.

Maitland, Fla.-based MeshNetworks said Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission had OK'd the sale of its long-range indoor wireless networking equipment based on the emerging Wi-Fi technology.

The start-up is one of several working to extend the range and performance of Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi networks use "access points," or radios, to create wireless zones of about 300 feet. Such networks have made their way into about 8 million homes in the United States, with analysts predicting that Wi-Fi setups will have reached more than 55 million U.S. homes and offices by 2005.

MeshNetworks uses a technique called "hopping" to extend the range of a Wi-Fi network. Usually, anyone more than a few hundred feet away from a Wi-Fi access point gets either a poor connection or none at all. MeshNetworks' users "hop" from one laptop to the next until they find one hooked up to an access point. According to the company, the technique can extend a network's range to 1,500 feet, enough to cover an entire office building using a single MeshNetworks access point.

The steroid-injected Wi-Fi networks are meant to provide a cheaper alternative for broadband providers or telephone companies looking to blast Web or telephone service into hard-to-reach areas. The equipment is also aimed at businesses trying to convert a large campus or office building from a wired to a wireless setup without having to buy hundreds of regular Wi-Fi access points.

But Gemma Paolo, a wireless analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group, said the market for these uber-Wi-Fi networks could be shrinking because the prices of conventional Wi-Fi networks are at historic lows--with some access points now costing less than $150.

"On the business side, it will have to be a really big deployment to make sense," Paolo said. "With the cost of access points coming down so low," it might not be worth it.

Rick Rotondo, MeshNetworks vice president of technical marketing, downplayed those concerns, saying that his company's product improves performance as well as cutting costs. For instance, MeshNetworks' modems don't just find an access point to use, they find the one with the least traffic on it, he said. That feature and others aren't available on networks that use dozens of ordinary Wi-Fi access points, he said.

MeshNetworks intends to start shipping routers and access points approved by the FCC in the next few weeks, Rotondo said. But it's mainly trying to find partners that can churn out millions of these devices at a time.

"There's demand right now, but by the time you get it licensed and get it up to speed it'll be six months," Rotondo said. "We can do this now, so we're manufacturing this to seed the market."

Rotondo did not reveal any product prices or whether the company has licensed its designs to device makers yet. The company had two product lines approved: Wi-Fi-based networks for indoor use, which it calls "Meshlan," and its Mesh Enabled Architecture, or MEA, which is meant for outdoor use and doesn't use Wi-Fi technology.

Hopping is just one of the new techniques being used to extend Wi-Fi's range. Other companies use powerful antennas. San Francisco-based start-up Vivato has developed a new switch that can extend a Wi-Fi network's range from 300 feet to 4 miles and allow for far more simultaneous users than most wireless networks can handle.