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Cisco takes Wi-Fi to town

Cisco Systems has debuted new technologies that enable cities to establish their own Wi-Fi networks inexpensively. However, the networking giant is already facing plenty of competition.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. has debuted the availability of a series of products that enable local government agencies to set up community-wide Wi-Fi networks without breaking the bank.

The products, which include the Cisco Series 3200 Mobile Router and the Cisco Aironet 1300 Series Outdoor Access Point/Bridge and 1400 Series Wireless Bridge, provide 802.11b and 802.11g connectivity across large geographic areas. Ideally, the offering would encourage police and other public safety agencies to move away from proprietary radio networks to standardized data networks.

Cisco has seen a growing interest from public safety organizations that can tap federal funds. Not only are they interested in improving communications, but they also see value in providing their field employees with access to sever-based data, said Ann Sun, Cisco's senior manager of wireless and mobility marketing.

"This is a network infrastructure solution," said Sun. "Each agency can use the network for their own key applications."

The 3200 Mobile Router is designed for use in a vehicle and can create a local area network among Wi-Fi-enabled devices in a car or van. It can also be used to connect those devices back to an access point.

Additionally, the router can accept a number of wireless cards for different kinds of networks, said Hugo Vilegen, senior manager of product marketing in Cisco's premises communication business unit. The router can be used to enable emergency workers, for example, to roam between a cell network and Wi-Fi network, or satellite or another kind of wireless network.

The bridge and access point are meant to help cities deploy the technology economically. While access points are limited in their throughput and distance -- generally to about 300 feet -- a bridge can send high speed signals over much longer distances, Sun said. Cisco's Series 1400 Bridge can communicate at 22 Mbps over a two-mile stretch.

Such speeds and distances were exceptionally high, according to Craig Mathias, founder at Framingham, Mass.-based research firm Farpoint Group. In fact, he questioned how desirable it may be to beam Wi-Fi signals over such a long distance, especially given obstructions like tall buildings or other potential interference.

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 "You don't want to optimize for distance; you want to keep distances short," Mathias said.

Cisco is hardly alone in this market. Several vendors, including MeshNetworks Inc., Firetide Inc., Tropos Networks Inc., Vivato Inc. and others, have already targeted this market. Some are working on ad hoc or mesh networks that "piggyback" off other devices to send and receive signals, keeping infrastructure to a minimum. Some use high-powered antennae to cover a whole town with a single access point.

Mathias said that it is good to have diverse approaches in this small, emerging market. And despite Cisco's entry, the little players still have room to flourish.

Cisco's Series 3200 Mobile Router costs $900. Its Aironet 1300 Series Access Point and Bridge is $1,299, and the 1400 Series Outdoor Wireless Bridge is $4,999.

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