Mesh Networks: New Options for Wireless Users

by Mark Long,

The race has begun to make wireless networks more viable for cities, large corporate headquarters, university campuses, and other environments where the technology used in today's Wi-Fi hotspots might be insufficient on its own.

Several companies -- including tech giant Motorola and smaller shops such as Firetide, Tropos Networks, BelAir Networks, and Strix Systems -- have been pursuing a wireless broadband network strategy, known as 'mesh,' to help extend the reach of wireless networks.

The ingenious technology works in such a way that users who are out of range of an Internet-access point do not need a dedicated connection of their own. Instead, they can piggyback their Internet requests on devices scattered around a geographic location. These devices relay the requests back to the central connection. In theory, long chains of such devices can provide Internet connectivity far from the actual access point.

Mesh Backbone

One company leading the way in the march to mesh, SkyPilot Networks in Santa Clara, California, is applying the technology to serve both residential broadband customers and city workers.

"We are the only company thus far to use the same mesh backbone infrastructure to provide both broadband Ethernet access and Wi-Fi," said SkyPilot CEO Bob Machlin. He said that such a network can scale to all kinds of distances and capacities, and that having a single integrated network makes it easier to manage the system as well as to maintain quality of service.

"Today it is very easy to do a Google search on the term 'metro Wi-Fi' and come up with list of a thousand projects out there," Machlin said. "They range from connectivity for public employees to ones that add on free public service and public safety connectivity from fire to police."

At least one Internet service provider (ISP), however, is sold on the mesh-networks idea. MetroFi in Mountain View, California, now offers residential customers in both Cupertino and Santa Clara Wi-Fi services for which SkyPilot provided the components.

"The deployments cover 20 square miles and use 25 SkyPilot mesh infrastructure nodes per square mile," said MetroFi CEO Chuck Haas. "And our service is available today for $19.95, or about half the cost of subscribing to DSL or cable."

Community Coverage

Another benefit of MetroFi's new service is that subscribers can access the system using a laptop from anywhere within the community's coverage area.

Although the company does not offer public-safety communications in Cupertino or Santa Clara, Haas said MetroFi is talking with other California communities about providing cities with such networks under an 'all-in' pricing of $50,000 per square mile, inclusive of site surveys, network design, equipment, and installation.

Beyond its potential metropolitan-wide applications, SkyPilot's technology has facilitated the rollout of broadband services in rural environments where DSL and cable providers fear to tread.

Larry Bowman, a partner at SkyWest Broadband, has deployed SkyPilot's technology to cover residential customers in Grass Valley, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Bowman said that SkyPilot's mesh-routing technology allows the packets of data that compose all Internet uploads and downloads to take several paths in order to get from Point A to Point B. As a result, his network's data travels automatically around hills, buildings, or dense foliage.

Wireless Heroes

'The way the system works is that you have one main antenna, which SkyPilot calls the Sky-Gateway,' Bowman said. 'Reaching out from there are the extenders that gather the information and forward it on to the main antenna. In fact, I am standing on the top of a hill as we speak, installing an extender in order to get into a valley that cannot reach the main gateway directly.'

The third essential piece of the system is the hardware installed at each subscriber's residence, which SkyPilot calls the Sky-Connector. 'It has an antenna and mounts somewhere on or near the home, and is connected to a wireless router within the home or to an Ethernet card installed in a computer,' Bowman said.

Bowman estimated that with the single Sky-Gateway that he and his partners have in place, and with enough strategically placed Sky-Extenders, SkyWest eventually could serve as many as 500 rural subscribers in Grass Valley. With Internet access service priced at $45 per month, SkyWest expects to begin turning a profit within six months.

"There's a local housing community where we have almost 100 percent penetration already," Bowman said. "We're their heroes."

Mesh Implications

"Because it features the ability to allow traffic to be routed around problem points, mesh gives certain advantages," said Yankee Group senior analyst Lindsay Schroth. "Due to its self-sealing capabilities, you don't have to have [a dedicated connection between access points]."

The value is in instances in which mesh 'will definitely make sense from the viewpoint of broader availability,' said Schroth. "For example, when the city of San Francisco talks about providing public access, the set-up will not be purely Wi-Fi," she said. Rather, it will incorporate what SkyPilot has been talking about doing. But the application of mesh technology might not be the best design in every case, Schroth added.

Even so, laptop manufacturers and software developers are beginning to eye mesh technology as a way to create mobile Wi-Fi networks even without having to place dedicated devices around a geographic area.

One company, PacketHop, recently released software, called TrueMesh, that gives Windows XP laptops the ability to route wireless data is if they were dedicated access points. If the technology were distributed by a major laptop vendor, such as Dell or Hewlett-Packard, mobile users might never be out of range of a wireless connection.

Copyright 2005 NewsFactor Network, Inc.

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