In city after city, high-speed wireless access may be the next Internet revolution
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.
BBSC's network piggybacks on other, failed, wireless businesses, as well as on older telecommunications ventures, such as a 60-meter-tall television transmitter tower south of the central city. Some of those earlier ventures failed because they didn't have BBSC's skill at mounting and positioning just the right number of radios on a tower to maximize data rates; without that know-how, multiple radios begin interfering with one another. BBSC's predecessors could have benefited, too, from the company's home-brewed network management and billing software, which can show customers how best to connect multiple offices through BBSC's network—and show BBSC where bottlenecks are developing and where best to allocate new resources.
In an aerobic eight-hour tour in the company of three of BBSC's bright young engineers—Trevor Paskett, 22; Josh Gottwald, 29; and Bryan Scott, 27—I saw four of the company's six network hubs. The complexity and diversity of BBSC's network is breathtaking, as was our survey of it, climbing up building staircases, steep rooftop ladders, and hillside switchbacks overlooking the Wasatch valley.
First stop: a large office complex called Jordan Commons Tower [see photos], owned by local magnate Larry H. Miller, whose holdings include several auto dealerships and the Jazz, Utah's professional basketball team. The tower, a former high school, is a data business's dream site, with redundant power coming from generators on two electric grids and multiple connections to the Internet's backbone.
BBSC uses several products to establish point-to-point wireless broadband connections throughout the 1500-km2 Salt Lake City metro area, and all were on display. They include Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim Inc.'s Tsunami QuickBridge radios that send data 5 km at 60 Mb/s (or 10 km at 20 Mb/s), and Canopy radios from Motorola Inc. (Schaumburg, Ill.), 16 km at 3 Mb/s. [See photo] The hub radios feed one another and more than 40 cell sites unconnected to the wired Internet. These smaller cells use Cisco's Aironet 350 radios, rated for 1 Mb/s to 11 Mb/s at distances of 240 to 600 meters.
The Tsunami and Canopy radios operate in the 5.7-5.8-GHz frequency, while IEEE 802.11b-compliant Aironet uses 2.4 GHz—all of which are unlicensed regions of spectrum, a matter of some concern. "A consultant told us that we ought to switch some of the hubs to licensed frequencies," Gottwald told me, as he unscrewed a custom-made gunmetal case crammed with routers, servers, and backup power supply. "We can already see how crowded 2.4 has become. We're ahead of the game because Canopy uses 5 GHz, but the same thing could happen there." Unlicensed frequencies become cluttered with everything from cordless phones to microwave ovens, as many home users of Wi-Fi have learned the hard way.
The company's 1400 customers are local businesses, apartment buildings, and other, smaller, Internet service providers, such as Lyman Brothers Inc. (Salt Lake City), which connects networks in southern Africa via satellite to the Internet through several Utah providers, the largest of which is BBSC. Strange but true: if you are an Internet customer in, say, Madagascar or Tanzania, even "local" e-mail may be going through Salt Lake City.
We piled back into the BBSC van to visit one of the system's key hubs, dubbed South Mountain, halfway between Sandy and Provo. It turned out to be an ordinary two-story office building. Getting to the 4-meter rooftop tower involved walking through an office to a closet in a corner of the building, scaling a vertical industrial ladder located there, and then pushing through a roof hatch. Maintaining a wireless network isn't a desk job.
Utah's wireless corner of the Internet, with its welter of connections, businesses, and technologies, also requires a good head for network topology and architecture. Hubs back one another up, as do the plethora of different ISPs. Ultimately, BBSC relies on two Internet backbone providers, the Electric Lightwave Inc. subsidiary of Citizens Communications (Stamford, Conn.), which has a direct gigabit fiber connection to the backbone, and Global Crossing (Bermuda).
I could have spent a week with BBSC, but it was time to move on. Retracing my steps onto I-80, I stopped for the night at Evanston, Wyo., just short of the Continental Divide. Snow had begun to fall, and more was expected. Lots more.
Home on the range
I woke to find a thick crust of ice on the car, but after an hour of diminished-visibility driving, I outran the storm. I arrived in Laramie just in time to have lunch with Brett Glass, a geeky 40-something computer consultant and technology writer who heads Lariat.org, a nonprofit that runs the state of Wyoming's only indigenous Internet service provider.
Lariat traces itself back to a computer users' group that decided, in the early 1990s, to take into its own hands the problem of good Internet access in a city of only 25 000 residents. After setting up a bank of dial-up modems, Glass and his friends considered the needs of Laramie's small businesses.
At the time, a standard U.S. Internet connection cost $3500 a month, buying a data rate of about 1.5 Mb/s. Lariat found it could buy radios and provide 2-Mb/s connectivity for a one-time fee of $3500 and monthly charges of $600 (nowadays, only $125 for setup and $125 per month). Thus in 1994, when most people were first hearing of the Web and PC modems were just breaking the 28-kb/s barrier, Lariat was offering wireless Internet access at data rates that are still unavailable to many people today.
Though able to offer the same data rates as BBSC, Lariat has several problems unique to the city of Laramie. Foremost are zoning regulations that prohibit construction of new antennas. Nor can Lariat piggyback on existing antennas owned by cellular providers, such as Sprint and Qwest, because broadband Internet is a potential competitor to those companies' nascent 3G mobile data services. Without a tall antenna able to cover the entire city, Lariat offers no residential broadband wireless access.
Lariat's second problem involves its connection to the Internet backbone. No regional Internet service provider in Wyoming offers the high data rates BBSC can get in Utah to pass packets in bulk along to their Internet destinations—"backhauling," as it's called. The backhaul bottleneck prevents Lariat from offering more or bigger Internet connections. "We could take on a 45-Mb/s account right now, but we don't have the bandwidth," Glass complained, his mood matching the now darkening sky.
In 1998, the local gas utility in Laramie tried to bring a different wireless provider into town. Ricochet, then owned by Metricom Inc., scattered its reasonably high-speed data receivers and transmitters on streetlights and the sides of buildings in urban areas. Laptops and PDAs equipped with a proprietary card would be able to get online anywhere in the city. However, Ricochet used the same unlicensed 900-MHz frequency as Lariat's network; fearing radio interference, Lariat mounted a successful campaign against Ricochet.
Metricom went on to establish itself in 22 cities across the United States before filing a spectacular billion-dollar bankruptcy in 2001 [see "What Went Wrong at Ricochet," IEEE Spectrum, March 2002, pp. 60-61]. The service was sold to Aerie Networks, which has patiently resurrected Ricochet in two cities, San Diego and its hometown of Denver, not coincidentally the final stop on my road trip. Glass warned me about worse weather to come, and I was off.
The next day, my blizzard—Denver's worst in 90 years—finally caught up with me, dumping what would eventually total 80 cm of snow downtown and an absurd 225 cm in outlying mountainside towns. Just before it shut down the city, I met with Ricochet's most interesting customer, Lieutenant John Pettinger of the Denver Police Department.
Until Ricochet, the only connection between cops on the beat and the Internet was cellular digital packet data (CDPD), a nominally 19.2-kb/s data service that's usually much slower in practice. In fact, the service is so slow that it's used only for short queries to the FBI or other law nforcement agencies to make sure that someone stopped for, say, speeding isn't wanted for murder elsewhere.
Though Ricochet's throughput never exceeds 180 kb/s, Pettinger's field tests showed that it's never less than 128 kb/s. That turns out to be fast enough for police officers to log into headquarters through a secure virtual private network. "Cops in the field can look at digital photos of suspects, they can query our database to find someone with a unique tattoo, or by height and weight and age—basically, they can use all the applications they normally do when sitting in the office," Pettinger told me. With a few taps of his Compaq Tablet PC's stylus, he was showing me the grizzled mugs of Denver's most wanted.
Police departments all over the United States use CDPD, but, being based on the analog cellular services of the 1980s, it's poised for the scrap heap: AT&T Wireless (Redmond, Wash.), its main provider, plans to pull the plug on it in June 2004. So these days Pettinger spends a lot of time telling other cops about Ricochet.
With the Denver airport closed, I sat in a downtown hotel room that I was lucky to have and pondered the demise of CDPD. Aerie CEO Mort Aaronson may have a winning formula for Ricochet: police departments get a network three or four times faster than Sprint's PCS at lower cost; Aaronson gets municipal rights-of-way for his streetlight pole-mounted access points.
Ricochet in Denver and Mesh in Orlando have several things in common, though snow obviously isn't one of them. Both hang access points off streetlights. Both maintain a network connection while in motion. And both think emergency and other municipal services—police, fire, traffic, and so on—are going to provide critical toeholds for their technology and products. But MeshNetworks' vision is more futuristic. What makes it different is the mesh.
In any wireless network, devices communicate with access points, which are connected to one another and the wired Internet. But in a mesh network, devices are also transponders, or proto-access points—they don't just exchange data with access points, but with one another as well. A given laptop or PDA's ability to connect to the Internet isn't limited to the access points it can directly reach, since intermediate users can push its packets out to the proto-access points.
One benefit of this is that individual access points are less likely to become overcrowded. For another, devices can reduce the amount of power they need; since every other user is, in effect, an access point, the likelihood that there's one nearby is dramatically increased. Imagine that every other cellphone user you see is also a miniature cellular tower.
How do the devices in a mesh network find out about one another and know who is intermediate to an actual access point? The network maintains a dynamic routing table that updates itself in milliseconds. While other networks, such as Ricochet's, use sophisticated routing tables to balance network traffic and transfer mobile users from one access point to another, none attempts Mesh's Herculean task of tracking proto-access points, also moving around at highway speed.
According to Rotondo, the disruptive technologist, the meshiness of Mesh's technology makes it ideally suited to police, fire, and other emergency services, and municipal applications in general. For example, the company has begun to make "bread crumb" devices, repeaters the size of a cellphone that can be left behind if, for example, firefighters have to comb through the wreckage of a burning building. They will never go farther than the network can reach, because as the radio signals weaken, they can leave behind another bread crumb.
The company also envisions these bread crumb-like repeaters built into traffic signals, parking meters, and just about anything else a municipality might want to put on its network. Once the mesh is built, it can be used by anyone. More access points and Internet backhauling can be added as needed.
While no other company has put together Mesh's combination of 2-Mb/s data rates, fully mobile wirelessness, and mesh networking, new developments to improve wireless last-mile connections abound. To name just a few, Vivato Inc. (San Francisco) recently released a Wi-Fi switch that extends the range of IEEE 802.11 from dozens of meters to kilometers by transmitting packets in a beam, rather than in all directions at once. ArrayComm Inc.'s (San Jose, Calif.) 3G cellular base stations similarly locate wireless broadcasting devices and aim their signals directly at them, improving data rates.
Meanwhile, a new extension to IEEE 802.16, a standard for wireless metropolitan-area networking, adds mobility to a specification that might enhance, or even replace, 802.11. And so-called fourth-generation cellular technologies, such as those of Flarion Technologies Inc. (Bedminster, N.J.) and Soma Networks Inc. (San Francisco), would combine the broad coverage of cellular with broadband data rates.
Which technologies, and which companies, will control the last mile is still unknown. But just as many first-time telephone customers bypassed wireline and went straight to cellular in places like Hungary, Brazil, and China, for many individuals and businesses around the world, the broadband Internet will be wireless.
To Probe Further
Lariat.org's 1998 dispute with Ricochet over radio interference is documented at http://www.lariat.org/lariatnews.html.
MeshNetworks' proprietary peer-to-peer routing is described at http://www.meshnetworks.com/pages/technology/qdma_vs_80211.htm.