I've got a Dell laptop on my knees and the wind is in my (very short) hair. I've got as many windows open as a beach house in summer—Google searches and instant messages to my wife; in the background, a new batch of e-mails downloads and my hometown public radio station streams on. It's the usual cruise down the information superhighway at 2 Mb/s.
But I'm also hurtling down an actual superhighway—U.S. Interstate 4, at a very real 115 km/h. I'm in a Ford Mustang convertible, under cotton-ball clouds and a postcard-blue Florida sky. The Dell is outfitted with a prototype card that communicates with a test network set up by broadband wireless start-up MeshNetworks Inc.
Earlier and a few miles away in Mesh's Maitland headquarters, outside Orlando, I had asked Rick Rotondo, whose business card calls him Mesh's "director of disruptive technologies," how fast we could go and still retain a broadband connection. After all, laptops using the best-known wireless Internet technology, IEEE 802.11, will move beyond an access point and lose their connections at mere bicycle speeds. Rotondo had grinned impishly and asked, "How big a speeding ticket do you want to pay?"
Even at speed-limit speeds, the Mesh network held up, with download data rates of at least 500 kb/s. That's faster, on the road and in the air, than Aerie Network Inc.'s Ricochet service, which blankets Denver with 128 kb/s coverage, maintaining connections at city-street driving speeds of about 45 km/h. Though slower than Mesh, Ricochet is no experiment—it made a highly publicized but failed attempt to go national in 2000, and now lives on in the Mile High City with several thousand subscribers. One, the Denver Police Department, uses it to put squad cars on the department's internal network.
Mesh is the only company to have figured out how to dynamically hand devices off from one access point to another at broadband data rates and six-lane freeway velocities. But beyond that, Mesh, along with Ricochet and other wireless point-to-point networks, are the best hope for a fully mobile future—a world where we can teleconference each other, watch news and entertainment in real time, order from online catalogs, pay our bills, and answer e-mail—anywhere, anytime, on ever smaller and sleeker handheld devices powered by ever more powerful microprocessors and software.
Such a world would be an enormous boon for some huge industries that haven't had much to cheer about over the past two years—computers, consumer electronics, semiconductors, entertainment, and information services, as well as, of course, the troubled telecommunications sector. It could also heal the digital divide, especially in huge swaths of the rural and undeveloped world, where wired last-mile connections are few and far between. For many, any connection is exciting; 2-Mb/s is positively thrilling.
What the new networks—Mesh, Ricochet, and others, such as the 140-km-long one run by start-up BroadBand Solutions Co. (BBSC) in metropolitan Salt Lake City—have in common is that they're fast, wireless, and not 802.11 (Wi-Fi), the IEEE standard that, despite its short range and limited suitability for outdoor use, has taken the world by storm.
They're not meant to supplant Wi-Fi so much as to supplement it—in some cases, literally. For example, in the BBSC network, wireless hubs, akin to a cellphone system's base station, might feed a building's rooftop access point that is in turn connected to a Wi-Fi access point inside. The result: hot spots of 2-Mb/s wireless connectivity that suffuse public spaces, offices, and apartments. Likewise, Ricochet offers a customized version of Linksys' popular IEEE 802.11 router; with it, an entire household or small office can share a single Ricochet account.
On the road
So this past spring I took to the road. Pursued by a monster Rocky Mountain snowstorm, I saw how wireless networks were transforming cities and towns in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. I topped off my tour with a trip to Orlando, home of futuristic theme parks and MeshNetworks' bold vision of fully mobile broadband access.
My odyssey started by snaking through a starkly beautiful landscape of mountains and prairies, cruising Interstate 80 toward Sandy, Utah, home of BroadBand Solutions.
Utah is an odd state. It's almost as large as the U.K., but because of the way it was settled by the Mormons, roughly 75 percent of its two million people live on less than 1 percent of that land, a narrow band defined by Interstate 15 from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south. Only about 10 km wide, the corridor is an ideal market if your goal is to provide wireless broadband to as many people as possible as cheaply as possible.
That's pretty much what BBSC has done. With six wireless hubs, four of them attached to the wireline Internet by 45-Mb/s connections, BBSC might have the largest single wireless network in the world. It covers 1500 square kilometers and 1.5 million people. Its customers pay as little as US $50 a month for bit rates of 1 Mb/s in each network direction.