MeshNetworks is to make its proprietary ad-hoc wireless networking technology, originally developed for the US military, more widely available by licensing it as a bolt-on to the widespread 802.11 family standards.

The MeshConnex software suite is MeshNetworks' version of mesh technology, which can be used to set up self-configuring networks that can blanket a large area with broadband wireless. Current 802.11 technology, including the Wi-Fi standard that is increasingly common in public, corporate and consumer wireless networks, can generally only cover an area of a few hundred metres for each wired connection.

A number of big networking companies and startups provide their own proprietary equipment for adding mesh capabilities but none of which are interoperable. MeshNetworks, Intel, Cisco and others are pushing for the mesh standardisation through a new 802.11 mesh study group.

MeshNetworks Enabled Architecture (MEA), was originally developed with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the famous US military body that helped develop the Internet, among other innovations. Until now it has only been available in kit from MeshNetworks itself, in equipment using quadrature division multiple access (QDMA) or 802.11 radios.

The licensing scheme is designed to allow customers to buy compatible, mesh-enabled WLAN products from a variety of manufacturers, which should also drive down the price of mesh devices. However, it falls short of the goal of standardising mesh, since MeshConnex-enabled hardware cannot connect to other companies' mesh implementations.

MeshNetworks' own equipment tightly couples MEA with hardware, but a new hardware abstraction layer allows MeshConnex to achieve a similar level of integration with any hardware and multiple operating systems, the company said. The software is still in testing, and is set for availability to manufacturers in the second quarter of this year.

The company has teamed with chipmaker Atheros Communications for an 802.11a/b/g access point reference and demonstration platform, which it demonstrated at last week's IEEE 802 plenary meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Mesh is considered the next big thing by many in the networking industry, offering what seems to be the logical next step for increasingly ubiquitous wireless LANs. Typical mesh implementations allow access points to double as self-configuring router/repeaters; to set up a network, one simply scatters access points across the desired area, and the access points talk to one another to create the most efficient coverage. Other versions of mesh turn the clients themselves into repeaters, or add mesh into low-powered devices such as sensors.

Like the Internet, mesh networks are distributed, meaning there's no single point of failure - if one node becomes unreachable, the others route around it.

"Mesh makes things much simpler because it means you don't need to do things like site surveying and laying cable," said Infonetics Research analyst Richard Webb. "This looks like MeshNetworks is making their special sauce available to build into other platforms."

Customers for MeshNetworks' own equipment include the city of Medford, Oregon, which is using it to provide high-speed wireless access to 100 city workers, including law enforcement, fire and rescue, public works and building inspection agencies, across a 24-square-mile area. The connections can be used in offices or while travelling at highway speeds.

A manufacturer called NexGen City will use MeshConnect for a 57-square-mile rollout in Garland, Texas, and other deals are in the pipeline, MeshNetworks said.

January saw the first meeting of the IEEE's study group - the predecessor to a working group - for mesh protocols in 802.11. The group's formation was urged by MeshNetworks, Cisco and Intel, among others.

A number of startups including Tropos, BelAir and FireTide make competing mesh technologies for wireless LANs, and have expressed scepticism over the standards process. Critics say standardised mesh could end up being a lowest-common-denominator solution that wouldn't have the efficiency of a proprietary protocol.

Those pushing standardisation say it's necessary to keep wireless LAN technology from fragmenting, as mesh techniques become more mainstream.

Companies may be taking an increasing interest in mesh, but that hasn't translated into mainstream success just yet. At least two major mesh trials have been announced in the UK, neither of which has come to fruition.

BT ran a pilot scheme in 2002 using mesh to provide broadband to rural areas, but it discontinued the project, saying the technology "wasn't right" for its needs; the technology provider, Cambridge-based Radiant Networks, is now under bankruptcy administration.

Late last year Nortel said it and BT had proposed a mesh trial to "a large enterprise customer" in London, but the trial has now been put off indefinitely, Nortel said.