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What a tangled mesh we weave

But does it fit the bill for muni Wi-Fi?

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While the promise of free-for-all municipal Wi-Fi networks remains on the horizon for most – and a Googly mess for others – mesh wireless, the technology that utopians fancy will float us away on a cloud of education, is making practical progress.

Ironically, the technology came out of a 1980s DARPA research project at SRI International, which separated from Stanford University in the 1970s amidst administrative concerns that the university was becoming an organ of the decidely anti-utopian Department of Defense.

Unlike the standard Wi-Fi model, where each device on the network communicates via the central hub, mesh network devices communicate through other devices, whether they are active participants in the communication or not. This means that data packets can hop long distances from device to device in parallel fashion, forging redundancy and stability by default. All this with no more security vulnerability than vanilla Wi-Fi, says leading mesh networking brain Dr Ambatipudi Sastry.

This makes it ideal for ad hoc networking - in natural disaster areas, for example. A better prepared Hurricane Katrina rescue-effort could have cobbled together a stable, high bandwidth mesh network double quick; it's easy then to imagine a spotter helicopter relaying the locations of survivors to rescue boats over video with GPS data.

Bay Area spin-out Packethop is working exactly that type of pitch for mesh wireless. Since emerging from SRI in 2003 in the hands of Sastry and CEO Michael Howse, the firm has concentrated on developing saleable applications for mesh networking, and has bagged contracts with several US cities. Also the company has performed a valuable public service of taking dozens of out-of-work actors off LA's streets - a recent counter-terrorism training exercise by 28 agencies in Long Beach demonstrated fast deployment of a mesh, and use of Packethop's GPS, whiteboarding and multiple video channel applications.

Spectrum analysis

The mesh wireless play is made somewhat easier Stateside by the 4.9GHz spectrum band, which is reserved for public safety applications. In Europe the spectrum carve-up makes it a tougher sell, although Packethop's top marketeer Kevin Payne reckons there could be a chance for its product in the UK, and he was over here recently to scout for partners.

Those monsters of tech Intel, Motorola, Cisco and IBM have their own mesh wireless efforts underway.(You can get a flavour of Big Blue's thinking on mesh from this executive tech report.) But the issue of available bandwidth has been a sticking point for the business case for such large firms; the market Packethop is currently playing to measures in millions of dollars, only.

Indeed, the consumer section of Packethop's website is noticeably thin, steering clear of making an actual pitch for wireless mesh in homes in favour of quasi-philosophical musings on the human compulsion to communicate. Which, to be fair, we can't blame them for.

Sastry is upbeat about the mesh-for-all possibilities down the line, but he reckons the biggest problem with rolling out a city-wide genuine mesh network are social, not technical. "You would have problems of people not wanting to share their internet access point. It's a way off," he said. ®

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