Friday, December 02, 2005

Katrina Makes a Mesh of New Orleans

Technical change is usually evolutionary, with new technologies replacing older ones slowly at first and then steadily taking over. The pattern follows a classic S-curve shape, with old and new battling it out until eventually the new technology becomes the status quo with even newer technology starting to make the next challenge.

That's been the state of broadband Internet service as more and more people switch to DSL and cable Internet service, dropping their old dial-up accounts. To some extent broadband has been swimming upstream not because it isn't a better idea or because people don't want it, but because the incumbent technologies have been resisting. Nowhere has that battle been more pitched than in the adoption of metro Wi-Fi. City governments get excited about making their entire area one big wireless hotspot. Local telecoms fight it tooth and nail, crying foul at big government's usurping what they see as their business. Many metro Wi-Fi projects have had the plug pulled on their designs before any plugs were ever energized.

Sometimes it takes a disruptive event to move things along. In the case of New Orleans, that event was Hurricane Katrina. Like the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, Katrina obliterated the existing wireline infrastructure. But wires and cables are a dinosaur-like technology that takes months and years to put back in place. Wireless technologies are quicker and easier to install. Like little mammals who saw their chance when the asteroid made sure the big dinos wouldn't eat them anymore, wireless access points are fearlessly popping up in New Orleans. The incumbent telecom companies can't exactly scream foul that someone is usurping their wired services. The wires are all gone.

What really is making wireless Internet access expand virally in New Orleans is a mesh network architecture. In mesh networks, radio sets exchange data with their nearest neighbors. Packets are routed from node to node until they reach their destination. Contrast that with the centralized architecture of a telephone company DSLAM (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer) that sits in a telco office and feeds DSL service over telephone lines to each destination. Flood a DSLAM or knock its wires off the phone poles and you're out of business. Knock out an individual node of the mesh network and the network keeps working. It just ignores the lost node. Lose more nodes and things slow down, but as long as two nodes can talk you still have a working network.

The new metro Wi-Fi network in New Orleans got jump started with donations of equipment by Intel, Proto Networks and Tropos Networks. It's up and running in the French Quarter with download speeds of 512 Kbps. That's as good or better than you get from a lot of DSL locations. It's also free Internet service, courtesy of the city. Expanding the network is as simple as adding additional nodes in the form of weatherproof boxes of electronics that hang on traffic light poles and draw their miniscule power from the AC already running the lights.

The upside of Katrina's destruction is that New Orleans has leaped into a 21st century communications infrastructure. Who knows what the effect of this will be in enabling people who were formerly techno-havenots because of Internet access cost or lack of availability. It has to be good for the community as a whole in the long run, although there is certainly a downside to those who had a vested interest in the old infrastructure. Not surprisingly, politics has reared its ugly head here too. The free high speed access will only be available while New Orleans is under a state of emergency. When the crisis is over, the system will be throttled back to only 128 Kbps of free bandwidth. Even so, with 128 Kbps penetrating every nook and cranny of the city does dial-up 56K stand even a prayer of revival? Clearly, one era has suddenly ended and another begun.

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