Be on the wave or under it
The News – 03/22/02
Wireless Mesh Networks: Islands Make the Net
Wireless local networks are sprouting across the US at an ever-accelerating
rate. For example, Starbucks is rolling out one of the largest
wireless network initiatives ever, planning on providing high-speed
Internet access in all 4,000 of its North American shops (see
a previous SNS).
MobileStar Network provides each Starbucks store with wireless
LAN connectivity using 802.11b (AKA WiFi) technology as well
as a T-1 Internet connection for each shop. Access at Starbucks
isn’t free, however. Users can pay as they go ($2.95 for the
first 15 minutes, 20 cents a minute thereafter) or signup for
a MobileStar plan, including 120 minutes for $9.95 a month or
their Local Galaxy Plan, which includes unlimited access within
select local metro areas for $29.95 a month. MobileStar's other
customers include American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Columbia
Sussex Hotels. The company’s T-Mobile Wireless Broadband service
is now available in more than 650 public access locations
nationwide, 528 of them Starbucks shops.
Of course, Starbucks is not the only one who’s setting up wireless
LANs. For example, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport just unveiled
802.11b access for several of its concourses. It’s free until
April 30, and after that it costs $7.95 a day for unlimited
access. That’s a bit pricier than a Starbucks monthly plan,
but, hey, it’s a captive audience. I’ve paid ten bucks a day
for wired access in a hotel room and been grateful.
There’s a fly in the ointment for these commercial wireless
networks, however: a significant grassroots effort to put up
free, publicly accessible wireless access points. It’s a worldwide
phenomenon, with networks
up all over North America, Europe, and Australia. One of the
oldest projects is SeattleWireless.
Its organizers describe their vision this way: “Wouldn't it
be interesting to walk down the street with your laptop or PDA
and be able to access your home machine? Or the business that
you're walking by? Or even the Internet? . . . We want to create
a wireless network infrastructure that is easy to set up for
the end user, has no recurring monthly fees, and is owned and
operated by its users (that's you!), not a corporation.”
Setting up freely accessible wireless networks is becoming
so popular that in some areas, these 802.11b networks are so
close their coverage overlaps, despite the fact the networks’
range is typically only 200 feet.
This overlap phenomenon creates
the possibility of routing traffic directly from one WiFi network
to another, bypassing the Internet altogether. This is called
mesh routing, and as a free grassroots movement, it could take
some of the steam out of not only Starbucks-like pay-for-play
WiFi networks, but also the expensive 3G wireless networks pushed
by the big cell phone networks. Why pay for milk when the cow
is free? Nicholas Negroponte, director of the M.I.T Media Laboratory,
said, “The social contract is simple: you can use mine when
you are in the vicinity of Mount Vernon Street, Boston. But
I want to be able to use yours when I am near you.”
Proponents envision a network that
will “self assemble” — speading like wildfire from neighborhood
to neighborhood as people buy WiFi equipment and either attach
to the wired Internet or pass a signal on to another wireless
node. And, as if we need another acronym, mesh network proponent
Tim Pozar, a member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, has
coined the term NAN, for Neighborhood Area Network, to describe
There is precedent for this type
of non-commercial, anarchic network: FidoNet. Back in 1984, before there was
a commercially available Internet, modem owners banded together
to support file transfers and communications via E-Mail and
Usenet News across the US and, eventually, the world. Most of
the early nodes were Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) that serviced
local groups of enthusiasts. FidoNet nodes agreed to swap email,
files, and Usenet articles on a regular basis, for free.
The FidoNet network is still operating,
and today consists of approximately 30,000 systems worldwide.
This is an important point: like a cockroach, this inelegant,
massively redundant, inefficient network has survived. Despite
the availability and massiveness of the World Wide Web, FidoNet
node operators still cling to this slower, less-efficient network,
probably in large part because it is free, and not influenced
by corporations or other large entities such as governments.
This supposedly obsolete technology has thrived and provides
significant functionality, for free, completely outside of commercial
networks in much the same way as ham radio has survived commercial
radio and long distance telephone service.
I see NANs, or mesh networks, taking
hold for the same reasons FidoNet has survived and thrived.
The major difference between a network of NANs and FidoNet is
reach. FidoNet was always an acquired taste, and node operators
had to be fairly technically competent, which limited its popularity.
WiFi node operators just need to know how to plug devices together.
In fact, most WiFi users are unwittingly providing access to
their neighbors since the default configuration of most WiFi
devices doesn’t enable security (see previous SNS issues here and here).
Because this ubiquitous connectivity
threatens commercial interests such as those building 3G cell
phone networks or those trying to sell access out of a Starbucks
or an airport, I predict government regulators will attempt
to shut down NANs through legislation. In this burgeoning technology
environment, attempts to ban a particular technology would be
useless, but the FCC could require an expensive license for
anyone running a WiFi node, for example.
I further predict that efforts
to stunt this movement will ultimately fail. The people want
to communicate, they want to do it cheaply, and they want their
speech unfettered by attempts at censorship or control. Like
a true grassroots effort, mesh networking will be as hard to
kill as suburban crabgrass.
NY Times (registration
ME: Point noted. But it is better to have P2Ped in vain
than never to have P2Ped at all.
MC: Very good...
To retort: (since this is fun)
It is better to have made money while building an operating P2P that
wins a Best of COMDEX award, than to have had a 18 month stealth
cycle with anxious investors looking over your shoulders and
return from COMDEX empty handed, out of money, and a few companies
mad at you for stopping shipment of a modestly useful product
they used for 4 months...
- Virtual Keyboard: This goes in the
“Things I Thought Would Be a Great Idea Years Ago, But
Was Too Lazy to Pursue” category. Alert SNS Reader Larry
Kuhn sent along a link to a new virtual keyboard. It displays
a keyboard image on any surface in front of your PDA. You
place your fingers over the virtual keys and type. Of course,
there’s no tactile feedback as when you press a real key,
but it sure looks handy.
- Gartner On eBusiness Urgency: Gartner
predicts that "enterprises that fail to develop an organization
fully adapted to the new economic environment in the next
two years will be driven out of the market by 2005."
In other words, transform into an eBusiness now or get beaten
by those who do. In classic style, Gartner assigns only a
0.6 probability to this prediction, but my feeling is the
relatively low probability concerns the date of the forecast,
not its inevitability.
Want This Phone, er PDA: Handspring has
released its Treo™ communicator, a combined Palm-compatible
PDA and a GSM cell phone (with service from either VoiceStream
or Cingular). It’s got everything except a decent cell phone
partner with national coverage: 16MB of memory, SMS message
service, a thumb keyboard like the BlackBerry, and a Web browser.
When the heck is ATT Wireless going to introduce a cool phone?
- 802.11a Equipment Available:
I know you’re probably confused about all the various wireless
standards; I know I am. Most of the time, when you hear about
wireless networking, it’s about 802.11b, a standard that runs
at 11Mbps and is also called WiFi. Well, WiFi has a faster
cousin, 802.11a (a name only an engineer could love – see
a previous SNS). It
runs at 56Mbps, and equipment to run the protocol is now becoming
widely available. Actiontec offers a $149 PC Card that is
compatible with existing 802.11a-based systems, such as Intel's
Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point. Right now, such cards
are likely overkill if all you want is Internet access, but
if you want to do local network file access and transfers,
it’s not a bad thing to do it five times faster, is it?
- The Shoemaker’s Children: AOL has
thrown in the towel and admitted that its email system is
not appropriate for business use. AOL Time Warner has been
given the OK for its employees to use an e-mail system other
than the company's own. Workers in the old Time Warner units
complained that AOL's mail was unreliable, would not permit
large attachments, and did not have features business users
want such as an out-of-office reply.
- Buzzkill: Alert SNS Reader Todd Mortenson
sent along a link to BuzzWhack, an irreverent compendium of
pompous, buzzword-infested prose. BuzzWhack defines buzzword
thusly: “A usually important-sounding word or phrase used
primarily to impress laypersons.” A buzzwhacker is: “A person
who receives some degree of pleasure in bursting the bubbles
of the pompous.” You can add BuzzWhack content to your Website
for as little as a dollar a day. I’m passing. There’s quite
enough buzzwords and buzzwhackage going on on the StratVantage
Return to Mike’s
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14, 1928 - July 5, 2003
Jane C. Ellsworth
20, 1928 - July 20, 2003