Selling a concept as cutting edge

Campaign: MeshNetworks is pushing a high-speed technology it feels can revolutionize wireless communications.

May 20, 2004|By Christopher Boyd | Christopher Boyd,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - Thousands of drivers zipping along Interstate 4 between Lee Road and Maitland Boulevard every day are oblivious as they pass through a demonstration zone for a telecommunications technology on the cutting edge.

Small transceivers mounted on lampposts and bolted to rooftops along the route form the backbone of an electronic "mesh" - a high-speed, wireless communications web that allows properly equipped travelers to surf the Internet and place phone calls.

The roadside web is a showcase for MeshNetworks Inc.'s signature technology.

The small Maitland, Fla., company has embarked on a worldwide campaign to sell a concept that it says will radically change communication - from public-safety and homeland-security systems to the way household appliances connect to one another.

"This technology is definitely going to be a home run, and possibly a grand slam," Mesh Networks Chairman Mike Buffa said. "I think that `meshnetworks,' the word, will become prevalent throughout the telecom industry before long."

The company is beginning the task of convincing potential buyers that meshes are the new next thing. It uses the Maitland mesh to show what the system can do.

Buffa obtained rights to the basic technology from ITT Industries four years ago. MeshNetworks has significantly enhanced the system, which ITT designed for the military.

While Buffa's company hasn't posted a profit, it is considered the leader in its field. Chief Executive Officer Richard Lucursi said the company expects to enter the black this year and, with enough growth, could issue an initial public stock offering by the end of next year.

MeshNetworks' system resembles a wireless Internet. In a typical mesh, calls and data transmissions are broken down into electronic packets similar to those transferred across the Internet. Like Internet data, a communication moving through the mesh can take many paths to reach its destination - a fixed receiver that connects the mesh to the wired world. Each handset or computer in the mesh doubles as a router, with voice and data traffic hopping from device to device until it reaches the destination point.

The technology is a radical departure from cellular communications, where each device connects directly to a tower that has to be relatively nearby.

But meshes can extend a great distance from the base unit, since traffic on a mesh can make many hops before it's finally transferred to the wired system.

Craig Mathias, an analyst with Farpoint Group, a technology strategy firm in Ashland, Mass., said mesh technology could change wireless.

"It is revolutionary," Mathias said. "I'm convinced that if wireless were invented today, meshes would be a key element."

MeshNetworks says applications for the technology are as abundant as the technology is complex.

Initially, the company began pushing its product to fire and rescue departments. Firefighters in burning buildings can quickly locate one another using a mesh feature that identifies the locations of nearby radios.

Field commanders also are able to see where everyone fighting a blaze is deployed.

Lucursi is pushing his company's product development plans on multiple fronts. The company recently licensed software for municipal communications systems for towns in Texas and Oregon and has a deal with a Chinese company that hopes to deploy meshed communications kiosks in Beijing. But MeshNetworks' biggest goal is unrealized: developing a product that might someday rival cellular telephones. Lucursi said the idea might find an audience in phone companies that don't have cellular divisions.

"There are a lot of wired-line companies that are looking for something," Lucursi said. But he also said mainstream wireless companies might incorporate mesh chips in their phones, creating a hybrid capable of moving data at very fast speeds.

"We definitely think a hybrid using a cellular system and our system would work," he said. "But we're not going to sell the idea to the cellular guys today."

Although meshing is a hot topic in telecommunications circles, it might not be a slam-dunk in the marketplace.

"Many disruptive technologies never get adopted because they pose a threat to mainstream equipment vendors," said Charles Golvin, wireless communications analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco. "That poses a huge challenge to companies like Mesh Networks."

Mathias said: "It takes at least 10 years for any new technology to become established. Nobody really thought about meshes until five or six years ago. On top of that, the wireless market is fraught with perils."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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