Casting a Wider Net

Forget hot spots. Mesh technology brings fast and cheap wireless Internet access to entire zip codes.

When Bill Marion talks about wireless connectivity, he’s not talking about an office suite in a small industrial park. He’s not talking about the Starbucks near the green. He’s talking an entire city.

Marion, information-services director for the Silicon Valley enclave of Milpitas, Calif., is the man in charge of an intriguing municipal project. The plan: to bring seamless 802.11 access to the city’s mobile public workers — wherever they happen to be in the town. “Anybody that’s out and about and has a need for data” is how he puts it.

Milpitas’s new wireless infrastructure, known as a mesh network, is designed to give police officers, firefighters, and building inspectors, among others, access to crucial information at data speeds ranging up to five megabytes per second. The city, which will be wrapping up its rollout early this year, is just one of a number of municipalities — ranging from Philadelphia to Grand Haven, Michigan — that are turning to mesh networks to get wired.

The fascination with mesh networks is not limited to those that tax, either. In November, Motorola Inc. announced its intention to acquire MeshNetworks Inc. And business users, particularly at companies with offices spread across a corporate park or in several buildings within a neighborhood, are also looking into them.

The eyeballing is understandable. While both traditional wireless local area networks (WLANs) and mesh nets have limited range, mesh technology can be easily and cost-effectively expanded to cover a lot of ground. Experts say the networks can provide coverage over a few thousand square feet — or dozens of square miles. Unlike conventional radio and mobile phone-based data-communications systems, mesh nets generally don’t have dead zones. They also process large chunks of data handily, making it a pleasure to get onto the Internet. The same cannot be said of cell-phone access to the Web.

Given the advantages, experts believe mesh networks may dramatically alter inventory management and logistics. Of some interest to finance types: mesh nets are a real money saver. Backers of the technology note that meshes simplify network deployment by eliminating the need to install access points with direct cable connections to the Internet. (With a mesh, all access-point backhaul traffic is sent over the air to a central station.) By getting rid of cables, companies can cheaply place Internet access points in hard-to-reach places. Says Craig J. Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a technology-research firm in Ashland, Mass.: “It’s possible to establish a clear financial advantage for meshes in many cases.”

Danger! Car Wash Ahead

Mathias estimates that a typical indoor mesh can cost up to 25 percent less than an equivalent conventional WLAN. With an outdoor mesh, savings can reach almost 90 percent.

For the city of Milpitas, such savings are a windfall. The real value of mesh networking, says Marion, is that it’s the only technology currently out there that provides high-speed data traffic across a whole municipality. While the Milpitas project does violate the golden rule of technology purchasing (never buy really new gizmos), Marion says he couldn’t wait for an ideal wide area networking solution to come to market. The city’s existing Cellular Digital Packet Data system, running at a top speed of 19.2K bits per second, was simply too pokey to support the transmission of photos, maps, floor plans, and other large graphics files. “We wanted our police to have access to driver’s license photos,” notes Marion.

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