Meraki: Mesh networks can kill Wimax

One of the most interesting technologies to come are mesh networks. In Amplia we are making some prospects on these technology applied to the M2M (machine to machine) communication. Zigbee fits perfectly for small amount of data, but it’s not good when dealing with mobile communications (PDAs, laptops, MP3 players… anything interactive and portable).
The only real ubiquitous networks today are the mobile operators networks. GPRS has an acceptable deployment, closer to 100% of the population in developed countries, but 3G technologies are still far from being everywhere. And probably they will never replace the GSM/GPRS in some areas. 3G networks let the users enjoy of the “mobile experience”, providing connectivity anywhere. The problem? The concept of flat fee is out of the scope of the mobile operators, and they charge per use (ok, they give flat fee with a traffic cap). This means that mobile operators cannot attract to the mass of users that use the Internet to share media content, 80% of the Internet traffic in Spain, for example. They only attract business users.
A couple of years ago, Wimax looked like the perfect technology for mobile operators (or alternative operators) to reach out the average Internet user. The deployment was cheaper because of the operation range of the stations and the speed of communication was higher than 802.11G. But we are in 2007 and Wimax has not exploded. Why? There are several reasons:

  1. it seems that the deployment of the network is not so cheap,
  2. Wimax was sold as a replacement of Wifi, but actually is a replacement for Cable and DSL, very mature technologies.
  3. Wimax hardware is not very popular, and it’s expensive compared to DSL+Wifi solutions, for example.
  4. The spectrum limits the amount of data guaranteed per users. So, depending the density of the area, the size of the cell can be like the size of standard mobile networks.

So basically if you want to deploy a Wimax network in metropolitan areas, you will have to compete with Mobile Operators and Internet Service Providers. The niche where Wimax can beat other technologies are:

  1. non very populated flat areas, here Wimax is a winner.
  2. metropolitan areas with flat-fee of traffic data, for mobile users.

I think that cheap mesh networks can really beat Wimax, because of the cost of the deployment. We can read here how the deployment of a single base station can grow over 120000$. With this base station, 1200 users in a path length below 1km could share a 384kbits connection. A path length of more than 1km needs an outdoor terminal to get a good download ratio.
I read in Linux devices that Meraki was selling a Wifi mesh router for less than 50$ (37€). There are also discounts per volume. We have tested mesh networking with OpenWRT and it works, the problem was the cost of the devices. The cheapest one was three times the cost of the Meraki’s gadget. If we take the budget of the Wimax base station, we can buy 2000 routers, and we still have 20000$ to pay the installation of the devices (10$ per device… a bit low). If we deploy the network in a grid of 5Km x 4Km, we can cover 20 sq-Km, assuming a distance between nodes of 100meters. That’s 4-5 times the area covered of by the Wimax base station!
May be I’m making some naïve assumptions, but the point is: may be Wimax is dead because Mesh Networks are cheaper to deploy. Wimax follows the ‘mobile operator’ approach: complex centralized infrastructure. Mesh networks follows the opposite approach: simple distributed infrastructure. In the wired world, internet has proven that the distributed approach is the right one. Google is the perfect example of the success based upon the concept of distributed computing. And do you know who is backing up Meraki? Google, of course…
Mobile operators and ISPs, Google is going to take over your business soon!

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