Cisco Systems has created a new way to bring the Internet revolution to the people.

The company today introduced a product line that makes it far more viable to deploy wireless, or WiFi, Internet access over vast outdoor areas. By tapping an emerging technology known as wireless mesh networking and adding innovative operational and management capabilities, Cisco offers cities and towns a more affordable method for providing free, public Internet access, helping deliver what many city officials views as an essential service while boosting economic development and improving municipal operations.

The heart of the system is the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series access points, which transmit and receive the wireless radio signals for connecting laptops and other mobile computing devices to the Internet or other wired networks. Unlike typical access points used for “hotspot” wireless connections at coffee shops, airports and other locations, the Aironet 1500 mesh access points can operate without a direct connection to a wired network.

Also called “backhaul,” this requirement for a direct connection to a wired network has been the limiting factor for wireless deployments, especially ones that are outdoors and far from the nearest Ethernet cable. But wireless mesh networks only need one, or at least much fewer, wired connections than standard WiFi systems. Wireless mesh access points can use their wireless capabilities to transmit backhaul traffic from one access point to another and out to the Internet. In this way, wireless mesh access points operate much like the router nodes of a wired network, with traffic flowing from one access point to another over the most efficient path.

Also, mesh networks make it much easier for people to “roam,” or move, while connected. Each access point can smoothly pick up a connection as a person travels out of range of one access point and into the range of another one. Thanks to this capability, mesh technology extends WiFi service from “spot” coverage to “blanket” coverage, making it possible for users to remain connected whiling traveling through an area as small as a few city blocks to one as large as 50 square miles or more.

Certainly, there are more than a few customers interested in such technology. The most prominent are the cities of San Francisco and Philadelphia, which both plan to deploy citywide public wireless mesh networks over the next two years. But hundreds of cities and towns from Dayton, Ohio, to Lebanon, Ore., are already deploying mesh networks or have plans to do so within the year. Wireless mesh networks also hold appeal to any organization or business that wants to use wireless connectivity over a broad area, particularly one that must extend beyond the reach of Ethernet wires. With such burgeoning demand, industry experts predict mesh networking will be a $2 billion market by 2007, according to the Dell’Oro Group.

While other vendors are also developing mesh technologies, Cisco has tapped its industry-leading wireless and wired networking expertise to create a highly scalable and easy to manage infrastructure. Cisco has led the wireless networking industry for the last five years with its Aironet brand, and its wireless products are used by more people and businesses than those from any other vendor. The San Jose, Calif., company has more than a 60 percent market share among corporations and telecommunications operators, according to Dell’Oro Group.

Earlier this year Cisco expanded its wireless product line with the acquisition of Airespace Inc., a market leader in centralized wireless local area network (LAN) equipment, including mesh architecture. By combining Airespace’s technology with Cisco’s wireless products, the company developed its new wireless mesh offering. The new products, including the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series access points, are now part of the Cisco Unified Network architecture, which includes a broad range of wireless devices and centralized management components for facilitating deployment and reducing the management costs and complexities of wireless networks.

Thanks to their lower costs, wireless mesh networks answer the growing demands for ubiquitous Internet access and other related digital communications. Cities can install mesh access points from street lights, power poles, or other public infrastructure in a matter of minutes. The only crucial requirement is a source of power. And since all the access points “talk” to each other, centralized management is much easier than with previous WiFi technology. If one access point fails, the network continues working just as before, only losing reception around the incapacitated access point.

Dayton, Ohio is just one of many cities that are looking to wireless mesh access as a crucial investment for economic development. More and more, municipalities view Internet access as a universal need. “Wireless access is like water,” says William Hill, director of information and technology services for the city of Dayton. “Free public Internet access is not the light at the end of the tunnel. It is a freight train coming right at us. If you don’t see it coming, you will be crushed. If we don’t deploy this kind of service, another city will and then it will be too late.”

Hill says a local company, HarborLink Network LLC, set up and piloted a Cisco wireless mesh network over a one-mile area as a precursor to deployment of a comprehensive citywide network that will cover “every public space, every street and every sidewalk within the city limits,” Hill says. Besides offering free public access, Dayton, as well as many other municipalities, plan to use its mesh network to support public services, such as linking police and fire departments or automating equipment monitoring and utility meter readings.

Hill says Dayton investigated other options for delivering public Internet access but they all proved too expensive or untenable. HarborLink uses an advertising-based model to fund the service. “After news of the Dayton project became public, our phone was ringing off the hook from other cities wanting to work with us,” says Rick Tangeman, president of HarborLink. “Free is always appealing.”

Tangeman says the low costs of mesh networking makes his company’s free, advertising-based business model possible. He adds that his company tested wireless mesh products from several vendors but the Cisco Aironet equipment was “head and shoulders” above the other options. He says he particularly likes Cisco’s centralized management capabilities, including the system’s network monitoring features, which provide a map of the entire network and show radio signal strength and traffic flow between access points. “It’s like having an X-ray of the network,” Tangeman says.

Tangeman says Cisco wireless mesh technology also can partition the network into separate virtual local area networks (VLANs), which makes it possible to independently manage and segregate traffic from different types of users, such as the general public and a city’s police and fire departments.

The Cisco Adaptive Wireless Path Protocol provides the key intelligence for effectively running the Cisco mesh networks, says Ben Gibson, director of wireless and mobility marketing for Cisco. Just as with the routers that serve as the traffic cops of the wired networks, the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series access points use sophisticated mathematical algorithms to decide the best ways to route traffic from access point to access point and out to the main wired network. The protocol helps traffic avoid congested nodes, offering the wireless networks a “self-healing” capability, Gibson explains. “This is where Cisco’s routing expertise comes into play,” he says. “Just as with wired networks, the quality of a wireless mesh network boils down to the ability of the equipment to route traffic intelligently, efficiently and dependably. Designing equipment for this task has been the forte of Cisco for the past 20 years.”

Cisco’s Aironet 1500 access points also provides greater bandwidth performance and reliability thanks to its dual-radio design, Gibson says. The Aironet 1500 contains one radio for making the connection with mobile users and another radio dedicated to managing the backhaul traffic flowing among the access points and out to the Internet. Many other mesh network access points only use one radio for both user access and backhaul traffic.

While Cisco access points might cost marginally more than mesh access points with one radio, Gibson says the operational benefits of two-radio access points far outweigh their initial costs. Most importantly, they greatly boost network reliability and effectiveness, Gibson says, explaining that backhaul traffic on single-radio access points often drains performance from the bandwidth available to users.

Cisco’s wireless mesh networks offer additional benefits by using the same Unified Wireless Network architecture and support technologies as its indoor wireless products, ensuring seamless integration between the two, Gibson adds.

Besides Cisco’s track record as a leader in networking technologies, sophisticated users support Gibson’s claims about the superior performance and design of Cisco’s mesh networking products. Cliff Frost, director of communication and network services at the University of California, Berkeley, says Cisco’s mesh infrastructure was the only one that performed as promised and met the university’s scalability requirements in a recent pilot program to bring wireless outdoor Internet access to the campus. “What we found was that there was a lot of hype out there,” Frost says. “As often happens, vendors see promise in a technology but getting it to work is a little tougher than they expected.”

After trials of the Cisco wireless mesh infrastructure, Frost is more than convinced that it can dependably provide campus-wide wireless access. Though not as dependable as a wired network, limited primarily by the fickle nature of radio waves, he says mesh networks can perform just as well any other wireless service, including cell phones. The university’s pilot network with 11 access points handled as many as 100 users at one time.

The pilot program, however, was not without challenges, says Fred Archibald, network manager with the university’s department of electrical engineering and computer sciences. Archibald says finding locations to mount the access points was difficult, since they are designed primarily for installation about 20 feet above the ground on street lights. But the university campus does not have many streetlights, so the team had to put the access points on the roofs of buildings and use special antennas to direct the signals to the ground. Archibald also says he would like to see some refinements in the algorithms that control traffic flow and management of the network, but he sees Cisco making “steady progress” in these areas.

Overall, however, the team is “very comfortable” with the technology and is now working on extending coverage across campus and into adjoining areas. “We’re striving for ubiquitous wireless coverage indoors and out throughout the campus,” Frost says. “That’s a tall order but Cisco has proven that mesh technology can be one more arrow in our quive.