Mesh Networking Moves Mainstream

Mesh networking is moving the mainstream. The Financial Times has an interesting piece ("Knit your own network") about a Mountain View, Calif., start-up, Meraki, which has "designed a low-cost mesh networking system that anyone can set up and manage." The author describes how easy it was to set up a mesh in and around his suburban home. He reports that "not only is Meraki the easiest wi-fi I have ever set up, it is also one of the best performing and simplest to manage."

Mesh networking a way of solving a critical problem - how do access points, whether a cell tower or a Wi-Fi router, connect to the Internet as a whole? In your home, your Wi-Fi router is connected to your cable or DSL modem. That means coverage is limited to the distance from the modem that the router can transmit to and receive from.

For few years now, some manufacturers, such as Apple with its Airport line of Wi-Fi routers, let you daisy-chain routers. Packets from the backyard hop through the further one to the one connected to the router. The fundamentals of that hopping were worked out in the 1990s for the U.S. military in research funded by Darpa. That research first hit the commercial world in the form of routing equipment developed by Mesh Networks, a Florida company that Spectrum wrote about in June 2003 ("Broadband a go-go"), and then again in January 2005, in the context of a large Las Vegas installation ("Viva Mesh Vegas").

Subsequently, Mesh was bought by Motorola, and meshing was incorporated into the IEEE 802.11 standard that underlies Wi-Fi (see "Wi-Fi Nodes to Talk Amongst Themselves"). The goal was to get routers from one manufacturer, such as Linksys, to mesh with those of another, say Apple, as easily as they do with ones from the same company.

In that sense, the Meraki routers are a step backward. Instead of cobbling together routers from diffferent companies, you use multiple Meraki routers. They are cheap though; buying new ones isn't a great hardship for most households - if you have so much real estate you need more than one router, you can probably afford these.

You start by plugging one Meraki Mini adaptor â'' a $49 (£24) box about the size of a deck of cards â'' into your cable or DSL broadband connection. This first adaptor operates as an internet â''gatewayâ'' and shares the connection with the other adaptors that make up the network and act as â''repeatersâ'', extending the reach of the signal.

Each Mini needs to be plugged into a power socket and has an indoor range of between 100 and 150 feet (30-45 metres). They come with suction cups so they can be mounted on a window. Like most wi-fi networking equipment today, they use the 802.11g standard, providing data rates of up to 54Mbps (megabits per second).

The company also has a waterproof router designed for the outdoors, which is, as far as I know, a first for home networking.

The outdoor adaptors, which cost $99 each, come in a weatherproof case and are powered using a long Ethernet cable, which plugs into a special adaptor and from there into the mains. Meraki is about to launch a solar panel and battery pack to power outdoor adaptors â'' ideal for remote locations.

The writer is greatly impressed by Meraki's ease-of-use:

The final step is to log on to Merakiâ''s Dashboard web-based network management tool, register each of the adaptors and give your mesh network a name. Once this is done, the mesh network is up and running. Sensibly, each adaptor is designed to download any updates from Meraki automatically.

Lastly, the company's model goes beyond simple home networking.

Merakiâ''s free integrated billing model allows network owners to set internet connection charges and collect automatic payments. In effect, this means anyone can set up a commercial mesh hotspot. The billing module includes tools for assessing revenue models and making sure the network is operating cost-effectively.

If Meraki's gear can get more and more Wi-Fi nodes up and accessible, it'll be a good contribution to the ultimate goal of ubiquitous high-speed access. The more ways we can get it - EV-DO and HSDPA from cellular companies, WiMax from cellular and cable companies, and meshed Wi-Fi - the better.

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