Saturday, February 19, 2005

Wireless Mesh Networks and Broadband Co-Ops

Instead of getting your Internet service from an Internet service provider, how would you feel about BEING the ISP or at least participating in helping to spread the connection throughout your community? With wireless mesh networks, you're not just a user, you're a provider too. For your participation, you get a share of the cost savings that come from be part of a cooperative effort, or co-op.

The whole model of carriers vs customers is being challenged by a different way of routing packets. Your typical WiFi hotspot has a central 802.11 wireless access point or WiFi base station that acts as the Internet service provider. The various people waiting in the airport lounge or sipping coffee in the cafe are the clients or users of the service. All communications are between the clients and the access point. This client/server relationship is the defacto standard in computing today.

That's today. Tomorrow a different topology may rule. The WiFi card in your laptop might become an access point in addition to its normal role as network client. In mesh networking every node communicates with every other node, not just back and forth to a central router. In another variation, called a partial mesh network, nodes communicate with all nearby nodes, but not distant nodes. This partial mesh network arrangement is what lets you build a community level "hotspot" by passing data packets from node to node until they get to their destination. Each low power access point may only have a range of 300 feet. Two of them push the range to 600 feet, three take you to 900 feet and so on. As computers join the network, they get to send and receive packets from the mesh, but they are obligated to share their bandwidth by also passing along packets that are intended for other users.

It's a very cooperative arrangement. To make this practical, the network needs enough intelligence to understand where nodes are located in respect to others, so that all nodes do not have to route all packets. That would really bog things down quickly. Instead, your node only serves itself and a few others.

So, what force is behind this move to denigrate the traditional ISP? Would you believe it is none other than Microsoft itself? Yes, they are hard at work in Redmond, Cambridge and Silicon Valley on what Microsoft calls "Self-Organizing Neighborhood Wireless Mesh Networks." The IEEE has a working group standardizing the hardware end of wireless mesh networks as 802.11s.

Pushing the Internet Co-Op envelope is the community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. They have an up and running project called CUWiN for Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. In this case, the technology consists of specialized access point hardware using outdoor antennas. If you want to participate you need to donate a PC to help with the routing or acquire a Soekris single board computer to mount in a weatherproof enclosure on your roof, along with a 802.11b wireless card and 8 dBi antenna. You can also help supply Internet bandwidth as a network edge node if your provider allows bandwidth sharing. Or you can simply act as a relay node to help extend the reach of the wireless network.

Mesh networks are very robust in that if a node goes down, the rest of the network simply routes around it. As nodes join the network, their resources expand the network and make it more robust. Almost sounds organic, doesn't it?

Will these living, breathing network organisms digest the traditional DSL and Cable ISPs? Not completely. You still need a DSL, Cable, Satellite or T1 dedicated Internet connection to feed the network edge. However, in communities that traditional broadband providers have forgotten, wireless mesh could spawn and preempt any hardwire build-out. Once WiMax nodes become practical, there really is no geographical limit to the spread of mesh networks resembling something of a... web!

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