A giant neon cowboy beams down at us. It's Vegas Vic, the smiling, smoking, mechanical icon of downtown Las Vegas. I'm sitting in the back seat of an SUV driven by Mitchell Gonzalez, president and founder of Cheetah Wireless Technologies Inc., a small start-up located in a cookie-cutter business park directly opposite Las Vegas's busy McCarran International Airport. I'm surfing the Web at healthy broadband speeds—1.5 megabits per second or so—as we drive around a 5-square-kilometer patch of the city where Cheetah is adding the finishing touches to a pilot mobile broadband wireless network.
I'm here because this little district of casinos, hotels, wedding chapels, and souvenir stores could be the ground from which the seeds of a telecommunications revolution will grow. Cheetah's mobile network is one of the first municipal installations to use mesh wireless technology, which will allow users to access the Internet anywhere within the coverage area—even if they're driving at 100 kilometers per hour. If the technology is adopted by the City of Las Vegas and other municipalities beyond, it will herald the arrival of a major player in mobile broadband, leapfrogging cellular technologies and next-generation WiMax.
Municipal broadband wireless networking is a market currently worth almost US $500 million in the United States and one that could grow to over $2 billion by 2008, according to Input, a Reston, Va.-based analysis firm. And if mesh operators can establish themselves in towns and cities across the nation, selling services to commercial users in addition to municipal ones could swell their revenues even more. A study by two other firms, BWCS, in Ledbury, England, and Senza Fili Consulting LLC, in Sammamish, Wash., estimates the commercial U.S. wireless broadband market will grow to $3.7 billion by 2009.
Mesh networks promise several key advantages over traditional wireless solutions, such as Wi-Fi or cellphones. Benefits include higher speeds, less susceptibility to radio interference, and greater resistance to network congestion. These networks also offer better coverage, the ability to prioritize different types of users, geolocation capabilities, tighter security, faster deployment, and a degree of immunity to catastrophic network failures. And, perhaps best of all for cash-strapped local governments, mesh network vendors are willing to be creative about financing.
Cities and towns possess something that can be even more valuable than cash to vendors of an upstart technology looking to take on the cellphone companies' current lock on the mobile data world: poles. Streetlights, traffic signals, and road signs—they're all attached to city-owned poles perfectly positioned for deploying the backbone of a wireless network, and as an added bonus, a lot of them are already wired for electric power.
In contrast, cellphone stations have to arrange for their own power and be placed on costly towers or attached to pre-existing buildings, often entailing lengthy and expensive negotiations, especially when there's local opposition.
So the wireless industry and municipal governments alike are keeping a keen eye on a dozen or so pilot programs that are carrying out mesh network demonstrations around the United States. With major cities like Philadelphia and New York in the planning stages of what will be massive, citywide networks, the stakes are high.
But this was far from the mind of Jorge Cervantes, assistant traffic engineer for Las Vegas, when, in 2003, he started casting about for a way to prevent drivers from abusing the system used to change traffic lights to green as emergency vehicles approach.
When black-market devices started appearing that let any driver trip the lights, the Las Vegas Traffic Engineering Department decided to acquire a new system that used coded signals so that only authorized vehicles could control the lights. But with 500 intersections and a constantly changing fleet of emergency vehicles, city officials rejected the idea of keeping each intersection's traffic-light system manually updated with the current database of authorized vehicles.
"We were looking for a way to communicate to all the signals, and we got introduced to Cheetah," explains Cervantes. "As we explored what they had to offer, we saw additional potential uses for mesh technology."