Tropos Networks: New Orleans Wireless

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 technologies—such as the IEEE 802.11 protocols, more commonly known as Wi-Fi—and 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 scenario—if Tropos were to go under—Mitchell 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.”

The Company

HEADQUARTERS: 555 Del Rey Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94085
PHONE: (408) 331-6800
TICKER: Privately held
EMPLOYEES: More than 100
FOUNDED: October 2000
KEY EXECUTIVES: Ron Sege, president and CEO; Mike Bailey, VP of operations; Saar Gillai, VP of engineering
BUSINESSS: Wireless networking equipment for metropolitan areas
PRODUCTS: 5210 Outdoor MetroMesh router supports 802.11b and 802.11g protocols, and is housed in a ruggedized casing; 4210 Mobile MetroMesh router is designed to provide wireless access in vehicles; 3210 Indoor MetroMesh router provides wireless access inside buildings.
MARKET SIZE: $76.5 million in spending on municipal U.S. wireless networks, 2005 ( estimate)
COMPETITORS: BelAir Networks, Cisco Systems, Firetide, Motorola, Nortel Networks, Strix Systems

The Technology
The Tropos system is a little like a Manhattan cabdriver: It’s hell-bent on finding the absolute fastest route to your destination.

Tropos routers use the company’s proprietary Predictive Wireless Routing Protocol to automatically figure out the best path through the mesh network—specifically, the route likely to have the least number of transmission errors, based on an instantaneous analysis of network conditions—for someone accessing the Internet from a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop. That’s different from other mesh-networking approaches, which route data based on the number of hops between devices or radio-signal strength (see “Wireless Mesh Networks,” September 2005, p. 78).

The company designed the protocol to minimize failed transmissions, because retransmitting data “is the enemy of capacity,” says Tropos’ Bert Williams. If you cut down on retransmissions, according to Tropos, there’s more bandwidth available for everyone. Another key: Tropos devices recalibrate themselves up to four times per second to adjust for conditions that interfere with radio signals—for example, if a private company’s Wi-Fi network suddenly pops up near a Tropos router.

Customers say the mesh technology has set the company apart from the rest of the field: “Tropos leapfrogged everybody else in the industry,” says Mitch Gonzalez, president of Cheetah Wireless Technologies, a wireless service provider based in Las Vegas.

Reference Checks

City of Corpus Christi, Texas
Leonard Scott
IS Unit Manager
[email protected]
Project: Expects to deploy 1,300 Tropos routers by August, in addition to 300 already in place, to cover 147 square miles.

Tulsa Metronet
Trevor Langham
(918) 398-0102
Project: Wireless Internet provider based in Tulsa, Okla., launched its service in September 2005, providing service over 13 square miles with 50 Tropos units.

City of Granbury, Texas
Tony Tull
Dir., I.T.
[email protected]
Project: City near Dallas uses 100 Tropos routers to give 40 city employees, including police and firefighters, wireless access over a 10-square-mile area.

Cheetah Wireless Technologies
Mitch Gonzalez
(702) 243-3824
Project: Wireless Internet service provider operates 75 Tropos 5210 routers in Las Vegas and plans to deploy 400 more by mid-2006.

City of Moorhead, Minn.
Bill Schwandt
General Manager, Public Service
(218) 299-5404
Project: City near Fargo, N.D., provides wireless Net access to 1,700 subscribers with 300 Tropos units covering 13 square miles.

Laguna Broadcasting Network
David Mitchell
[email protected]
Project: Service Provider in Laguna Beach, Calif., Uses 100 Tropos Units to Deliver Wireless Network Access.

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)

Story Guide:

IT In Katrina’s Wake

  • What was Left In Katrina’s Wake
  • New Orleans had big I.T. plans—before Katrina
  • Preparing for the storm
  • Recovery: Some decisions that paid off
  • New Orleans CIO deals with political storms
  • VOIP, Web portals, geographic information systems all play a role in New Orleans’ recovery

    Other Stories:

  • Mayor Ray Nagin promised to run the city like a business
  • How mobile computing and wireless networks sped post-Katrina housing inspections.
  • Video surveillance let authorities keep a close eye on this year’s Mardi Gras
  • Calculating the cost of a solid disaster recovery plan
  • 4 tips for technology executives looking to expand their roles
  • Vendor Profile: Why New Orleans and others turn for Tropos Networks for their wireless networking needs.
  • BLOG: Baseline’s Kim Nash wonders why almost one-third of all companies don’t have continuity plans