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« A Little Help? | Main | Bush Chooses CLEC Lobbyist for FCC Seat »

February 2, 2006

Tropos Talks Cable

Red Herring reports Tropos said it's talking to cable firms about using their gear for outdoor Wi-Fi: It's not a surprise. Comcast's investment arm injected cash into BelAir a few weeks ago, which simultaneously announced cable-plant-powered mesh access points. Comcast has been one of the most vocal firms opposing municipal broadband, but most recently offered a year-out-of-date critique of the plans based on cities building the service themselves and funding it from taxpayer dollars.

(This Red Herring article linked says that "cable companies have fought publicly backed city Wi-Fi plans in courts," but I'm unaware of any injunctions, orders, or lawsuits.)

In a recent interview, Tropos's CEO Ron Sege told me in reference to the BelAir investment, "I can give you a long list of captive venture capital arms investing in things that are never used by the operating sides of their companies." This seemed to signal that a Tropos cable deal might eventually be forthcoming. Cable settop box maker Scientific Atlanta was a Tropos partner, but the company was acquired by Cisco last year which now offers its own mesh access points while also owning consumer/SOHO/SMB networking firm Linksys.

But Sege thought that the cable plant wasn't the ideal place to pull capacity from. DOCSIS, the cable industry encoding standard for data over unused local channel spectrum, lack the "upstream capacity," Sege said. He thought there was a large mismatch between even a single 802.11g gateway--capable of at over 20 Mbps of real throughput--and the current cable base. DOCSIS 3.0 has more upstream capability, but it's highly asymmetrical.

In a world where asymmetry is reducing--"broadband is becoming more symmetrical"--Sege said, "It's not clear that the DOCSIS plant is going to be useful in this environment."

Meanwhile, I spoke to BelAir's CEO Bernard Herscovich recently as well, and he said that cable companies' "emergence as wireless players is probably going to be the most exciting news in our industry in the next 12 to 18 months." He said that cable firms have an advantage because "the architecture in the cable space is an IP-oriented approach, very close to what people call NGN or next-generation network architecture."

I had heard from some sources that franchise agreements with cities might limit cable firms deploying mesh nodes on their rights of way, such as poles. Hescovich said no. "They would be able to go and place a mesh node without requiring additional approvals," he said. With BelAir gear, that can be directly powered by the cable plant, "The strand in the cable network has power. There are no power issues, there are no site acquisition issues."

He also said that multiple system operators (MSOs), cable firms that have many operations, have a cost advantage. "Our estimation is that it would be about 30 to 40 percent cheaper by an MSO to build such a network compared to somebody who doesn't have that kind of network," Herscovich said.


Glenn, Thanks for pointing out the typo for built/build for Red Herring's story in reference to the Mountain View network. We changed it. As far as $10 million for Philly - Earthlink is planning to spend that much - we confirmed with them earlier this week. And the Philly Inquirer has also reported the same figure. As for your comment about lawsuits, the story does not mention a lawsuit, but refers to attempts by incuments to regulate city-wide wifi, which have been widely reported. There are many state laws that have been enacted and heavily lobbied for by incumbents that prevent public buildouts of city-wide wifi.

[Editor's note: I've updated the story to reflect these changes. I'm still surprised at the $10 million figure; it's far below Philly's business plan estimate and numbers I've heard bandied about. However, related to "lawsuits," the article says that cable companies have fought municipal efforts in court--perhaps injunctions? I'm unaware of any such actions.--gf]

Glenn, thanks for the interesting commentary today on the cable companies' increasing interest in Wi-Fi... a couple of points of clarification... our cable customers have asked for specific features to enable them to integrate wireless mesh within their networks. A main driver for them is the ability to deliver quality voice services over Wi-Fi (You just can't do that viably on single radio shared mesh). They also want DOCSISĀ® and fiber interfaces to connect directly into their network. Finally, cable architectures require a specific mobility solution, which we have implemented.

We've been working with cable operators for a long time to define the right architecture. In fact, it was our proven success in their market that drove the investment in BelAir.

We have been bullish on this market for a long time. We began in 1997 when wireless was still very green and have focused on the Cable market, even when it was wholly unfashionable to do so. HFC architecture is very promising wireless backbone, and we have the largest, longest continually operating systems in the world, dating back 3 years or more -- some deployments with contiguous coverage of up to 20 square miles, deployed in 6 countries with dozens of operators, including the world's largest players. It works. Failure rates are on par with the fiber systems that drive these operating systems. Payload throughput on a per-user basis, when done correctly, rival that of the configured DOCSIS speeds, meaning that there really is no difference between wired and wireless service. For years this threatened the status quo, but Cable operators are now sensing that they cannot make the wired vs. wireless choice for subscribers. The sub's will simply vote with their feet. Mesh-based systems tend to begin failing with only a few users and a few hundred kilobits demand on the network. See

One of the healthiest signs for this space is that a lot of imitations are appearing on the market, but these are mostly heavily-indebted mesh start-ups looking to find a "buyer of last resort" for fundamentally flawed mesh technologies before the VC's call in the dogs on their failing ventures because they can't service the 20X earnings expectations. That's why many of these mesh companies have needed last-minute cash infusions to develop new markets for failing technologies. Mesh is only attractive when you desire real infrastructure but do not have any way of creating real infrastructure. But it's turning out to be more "perpetual motion" than a reliable and predictable infrastructure technique. Cable IS infrastructure. Meshing -- whether single or multiple radio -- has no place there, and force-fitting it is a waste of time and money and may ultimately hurt the industry and consumers. Last minute VC cash infusions in a struggling start-up do not signal confidence as much as it does desperation. Something like 1 in 20 venture funded companies make it, so odds are that if you go with one you've picked a loser. It's better to work with innovators who are funded, not their powerpoint prowess, but rather by their deployed marketplace successes. Only then does the market succeed.