Providing wireless access in an office building is one thing. But how do you deliver fast and reliable Wi-Fi links over dozens of square miles in a city like New Orleans?
Tropos Networks believes it has answered this riddle better than anyone else, using a combination of standard wireless technologiessuch as the IEEE 802.11 protocols, more commonly known as Wi-Fiand its own nonstandard “mesh networking” routing technology.
In a mesh wireless network, routers act as relay points to transmit data to a central gateway connected to a wired network. That eliminates the need to hook every wireless access point (often affixed to a lamppost or other outdoor structure) directly to the Internet, a costly proposition if you’re trying to blanket a metropolitan area with hundreds of devices.
Privately held Tropos, founded in 2000, has become a top provider of Wi-Fi access systems for metropolitan areas. As of year-end 2005, the company says it has landed more than 300 customers, including municipal governments like New Orleans, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City and wireless Internet service providers.
Customers say Tropos built an early lead by introducing a Wi-Fi system three years ago when competitors, such as Motorola, were still peddling metro-area wireless data systems that required proprietary equipment to access the network from laptops or other devices. The Tropos system, from the get-go, allowed any standard Wi-Fi equipment to connect. “Tropos did a good job of assessing the needs of the market,” says David Mitchell, chief technology officer of Laguna Broadcasting Network, a wireless Internet service provider that has deployed 100 Tropos routers in Laguna Beach, Calif.
Another feather in Tropos’ cap: Its stuff just works, and works well, according to customers. “The Tropos equipment is dead reliable,” Mitchell says, adding that the company’s Outdoor MetroMesh router “is a ruggedized unit, built like a tank.”
The biggest concern about Tropos? For Mitchell, that was its proprietary mesh-networking protocol for router-to-router communication (see sidebar). “Once you’re using their equipment, you’re tied to a sole-source vendor,” he notes. In the worst-case scenarioif Tropos were to go underMitchell says he would “draw a ring around our existing infrastructure” and operate it separately from any new equipment his company rolled out.
Tropos, for its part, points out that everyone in the industry has been forced to develop proprietary mesh-networking protocols, since there’s still no standard suitable for metro-scale networks. At this stage, attempting to standardize mesh-networking technology would be premature, says Bert Williams, Tropos’ senior director of marketing. “I’d be concerned that if there were an attempt at standardization today, you’d end up with a lowest-common denominator,” he says.
For now, Tropos customers say what’s more important is feeling that the company is committed to improving its products.
Tony Tull, director of information technology for the city of Granbury, Texas, led a team that early last year rolled out a test network of 45 Tropos 5110 routers. But there were some features missing that Tull wanted before the network was “ready for prime time.” For one thing, Granbury needed the network to be able to handle multiple Service Set Identification (SSID) codes, which laptops or other devices use to locate a Wi-Fi network. Tull wanted to establish one SSID for the city’s use and one for public access, and to give priority access to police and fire officials.
Tropos introduced the 5210 router in April 2005, and the new unit “incorporated everything we needed,” Tull says. “It solved all the little problems, and it showed us we had a vendor who was very responsive.” Granbury has since replaced all the units from the pilot project and now operates around 100 5210 units.
Tropos claims its products theoretically can handle wireless networks with an unlimited number of routers. So far, the technology has been able to scale up for even the most spacious metro areas. The city of Corpus Christi, Texas, is expanding its 300-router Tropos wireless network with 1,300 additional units by August to cover 147 square miles, an area with about 280,000 residents. The $7.1 million the city is spending on the network will provide wireless access to police officers, firefighters, municipal employees and residents, and it will eventually relay data from 120,000 wireless water and gas meters Corpus Christi is installing.
“We’re still waiting for something to go down,” says Leonard Scott, manager of Corpus Christi’s Wi-Fi and automated meter reading projects. “But we haven’t had any problems with the Tropos gear.”
Revenue: Not disclosed
Funding to date: $51M
Investors: Benchmark Capital, Boston Millennia Partners, Duff Ackerman & Goodrich, Hanna Ventures, Integral Partners, Intel, Siemens, Voyager Capital, WK Technology Fund
No. of customers reported: 300 (as of December 2005)