From: Norm Jacknis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed Jul 24 2002 - 23:10:35 EDT
A New Spin on the Wireless Web
>From the beginning, the Internet had the whole free-form networking thing
down. A packet of data could hop from one node to another all the way to its
destination. Now a band of scrappy startups has figured out a way to mimic
this model - with mesh networks. The technology has the potential to bypass
the telcos and saturate the nation in cheap wireless signals.
It's about time. If the concept takes off, it would be a real alternative to
the chimera that is 3G technology, getting similar performance - always-on,
high-bandwidth communication - using hardware and software that's here now.
Corporate complexes and university campuses are already experimenting with
The beauty of meshes? They're bottom-up networks that capitalize on the rise
of Wi-Fi and other open wireless technologies. They shimmer into existence
on their own, forming ad hoc out of whatever's in range - phones, PCs,
laptops, tablet computers, PDAs. Each device donates a little processing
muscle and some memory. Packets jump from one user to the next - finding the
best path for the conditions at any given moment - and finally skip to a
high-bandwidth base station, which taps into the Internet.
The result: big boosts to the range and speed of wireless signals. With the
help of, say, 50 meshed PCs, PDAs, and phones, a typical Wi-Fi network with
a 500-foot range can be transformed into one that extends 5 miles. In fact,
the performance gains and cost savings are so great that these systems
easily undercut today's wireless broadband service. A good telco plan
typically costs $150 a month; a better mesh hookup will run about $45.
Traditional wireless systems are constrained by the old hub-and-spoke model.
In a standard Wi-Fi network, for example, all the devices in range connect
to a single transmitter. Running broadband through this kind of grid is
"like the drunk at a party. He's screaming and nobody else can have a
conversation," says Peter Stanforth, CTO of Florida-based MeshNetworks, one
of the field's leading companies. Get rid of the loud drunk, and the gossip
races across the room from speaker to speaker.
Wi-Fi can do just that. The wireless PC cards, which are flying off shelves
at a rate of 1.5 million a month, can communicate with one another, peer to
peer. The same goes for Bluetooth and the handful of proprietary
technologies just bubbling up.
Stanforth's company is pushing mesh technology using Wi-Fi. The firm sells
embedded chips, routers, and network access points that let wireless devices
mesh. SkyPilot Network, CoWave Networks, and Ember are chasing the same
market. Small ISPs like Vista Broadband Networks are using rooftop routers
to deliver telco-free high-speed connections.
Mesh could make the wireless Web sexy again. When MeshNetworks did field
trials in Orlando, engineers clocked speeds of up to 6 Mbps, faster than a
cable modem. To show off, they took visitors out on the highway for a little
demo: a laptop receiving streaming video at 70 mph.
Is it possible for a networking technology to be too fabulous for its own
good? Perhaps - if you're Sprint, AT&T, or Verizon. "An issue with mesh
networks is they're potentially really cheap, so there's no incentive to
build one if you're a telco," says Michael Gould, a senior research engineer
at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence. But as mesh spreads, it will be
hard to resist.
- Neil McManus
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