Internet Network Will Give You Faster, Portable and Less Expensive Connections
By John Markoff
There is a major shift in thinking on Internet wireless as a radical shift is developing that will change the way we wall connect to the Internet in the near future.
The informal Wi-Fi networks that inexpensively provide wireless Internet access are fine, as far as they go - which is generally a few hundred feet. But what happens when there are enough of them to weave together in a blanket of Internet coverage?
What begins to appear is a high-speed wireless data network built from the bottom up, rather than the top-down wireless cellular data networks now being established by giant telecommunications companies.
Many Silicon Valley engineers now believe that it will be possible to take the tens of thousands of inexpensive wireless network connections that are popping up in homes and coffee shops all over the country and lash them together into a single anarchic wireless network. Connections could theoretically be passed from one Wi- Fi node to another, similar to the way wireless phone signals pass from cell to cell, thereby significantly extending the wired Internet.
Modeled closely on the original nature of the Internet, which grew by chaining together separate computer networks, the technology - known as wireless mesh routing - is being rapidly embraced in the United States as well as in the developing world, where it is viewed as a low-cost method for quickly building network infrastructure.
If the engineers are right, the popular and inexpensive Wi-Fi wireless standard, also known as 802.11, could serve as the wedge for the next-generation Internet, enabling a new wave of wireless portable gadgets that ultimately blanket homes, schools and shopping malls with Internet access.
Currently most 802.11 networks serve as individual beacons that provide wireless Internet connections to portable computers situated within 200 feet or so of an 802.11 transmitter. What wireless mesh routing offers is the promise of a vastly more powerful collaboration driven by the same forces that originally built the Internet.
"The good news is that broadband wireless access will finally explode," said Nicholas Negroponte, the director of the M.I.T Media Laboratory. "The social contract is simple: you can use mine when you are in the vicinity of Mount Vernon Street, Boston. But I want to be able to use yours when I am near you."
The technology is being driven both by a gaggle of ambitious start-up companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and by a hobbyist movement that mimics the original Homebrew Club that led to the personal computer industry.
Tim Pozar is trying to put wireless access stations on the hills ringing San Francisco. In theory, the stations would be the seeds of a network that could spread across the Bay Area.
Today, Tim Pozar and several of his friends are seizing the high ground, literally and figuratively, in a movement that could undercut the nation's cellular companies, which are investing tens of millions of dollars in top-down, heavily engineered, digital cellular networks.
Mr. Pozar, a radio engineer, is a member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, an active band of hobbyists who have been building free networks in communities through the region. Mr. Pozar and some of his friends have quietly begun obtaining the rights to place $2,000 wireless network access stations on the mountains and hilltops that encircle San Francisco Bay. If he succeeds, the network will be a starting point for a wireless data network that could eventually spread all over the Bay Area.
Significantly, what will set Mr. Pozar's planned Sunset Network and those like it apart from the commercial cellular networks now being constructed at great expense is that they will "self assemble" - expanding from one neighborhood to the next as individuals and businesses join by buying their own cheap antennas that either attach to the wired Internet or pass a signal on to another wireless node.
Mr. Pozar has even come up with a new acronym to describe his plan. In addition to the existing terminology of LAN's and WAN's - local and wide area networks - he is proposing the idea of NAN's, or neighborhood area networks.
The so-called Nanny Networks are rapidly becoming the hottest thing in Silicon Valley and internationally. There are now at least 19 companies developing proprietary wireless mesh routing technologies, all trying to replicate the original Internet in a wireless form.
It is not an easy task because the companies are engineering for a new kind of design, with which they must route data packets over paths where network nodes constantly pop up and disappear.
Moreover, wireless networks must overcome an array of environmental obstacles that do not plague wired networks, including hills, rain and trees.
Such networks, however, do have the critical advantage of economy of scale. In contrast to the cellular data networks, in which every customer is an added cost, in some respects in wireless mesh networks the more users who join the better the network performs.
In the jargon of Silicon Valley, wireless mesh routing is potentially a "disruptive technology," a new technology that is likely to upset the existing order by using the same powerful economics of cost and scale that initially drove the growth of the commercial Internet.
Already, companies like Mesh Networks, based in Maitland, Fla., are selling systems of wireless routers, making it possible to create self- assembling and self-healing networks that would cover an urban area.
There are also companies like Boingo Wireless and Sputnik, which focus on software and services that make it possible for wireless users to roam among networks. Similar technologies were crucial in the development of the original nationwide analog cellular voice networks.
In Silicon Valley, companies like Skypilot Network, FHP Wireless, Ultradevices, CoWave Networks, SRI's Packet Hop and others are all developing networks that have the potential to weave together networks made up of wireless antennas.
"We're going to start seeing more mom-and- pop Internet service providers buying access points that will support 802.11," Mr. Pozar said. "At first I thought it was going to just be geeks doing wireless, but now everyone has one of these things deployed."
New York Times March 6, 2002
Guest Comment From Dana Blankenhorn:
Everyone knows Moore's Law. Chips get twice as fast (or half as cheap) every 18 months. This has been a fact of silicon life for 35 years. Microsoft hid this from us by adding complexity to Windows so users had to replace their machines (and operating systems) every few years to take advantage of the "latest and greatest" (which is always late, and often not that great).
The WinTel game has, for 20 years, kept the economy from feeling the full effect of Moore's Law, which is spelled d-e-f-l-a-t-i-o-n.
The rise of the Web has shown us the deflation that was always there. My 333 MHz laptop works fine, even while 2.2 GHz machines are available at popular prices. My upgrade has been to get broadband, a faster connection to the Net than available via modem.
And that's the rub. Getting broadband into neighborhoods through DSL or cable costs billions of dollars, we're told, money that telephone and cable operators can only find by regaining monopoly rights over their subsidized lines and pretending "competition" means you get to choose between them.
They're not evil. They're just basing their thinking on the 30-year depreciation schedules they've used since the 19th century to deliver their services. Word up: the 19th century is over. Welcome to the 21st.
The key law for the 21st century is Moore's Law. It's not a scientific law, or even an economic law, but an engineering law that may (eventually) be repealed. And there's more to Moore than meets the blinking eye. A lot more. Here are the latest findings, and what they mean:
1. Moore was a pessimist.
"No one in the volume PC space today needs a 1-GHz processor," said analyst Keith Diefendorff in 2000. "It's just useless." Moore thought his Law would "hit the wall" after 1995. Instead the pace of improvement has accelerated.
2. Moore's Law applies to bandwidth.
This is sometimes called "Nielsen's Law," after usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who coined it back in 1998. His pronouncement drew skeptics.
But then Bell Labs discovered "Wave Division Multiplexing". Fiber cables were designed to send a single white light down the line. The lab found colors. By 1999 Bell was able to transmit over 1,000 separate colors over fiber in a lab. Change the electronics at each end of a link and you change its capacity. Those electronics are subject to Moore's Law. Thus fiber capacity is subject to Moore's Law.
3. Moore's Law does not apply to copper.
Moore's Law involves semiconductors, not conductive materials. The wires owned by telephone and cable companies, and the equipment they attach to, are all based on copper. DSL did allow a jump in copper capacity by linking two identical modems on a line, but DSL is expensive to deliver, and its capacity diminishes with distance.
The cable upgrades needed for broadband service involve running fiber toward thick copper lines, which still suffer the limits of their breed. Only when fiber runs to every home can wires compete, but then they have to extract the cost of all that fiber from customers over a 30-year life. The economics doesn't work.
4. Moore's Law applies to radios
This is the most important fact of all. You can see it in that disposable cell phone that cost hundreds of dollars a few years ago. Data radios are the same way, getting better and cheaper with time.
A few years ago we assumed that each cycle of frequency could take one bit per second of traffic - 1 b/s/h. Not only does that appear inaccurate, but there are other technologies available to increase wireless capacity. Spread-spectrum technology (already used for CDMA cellphones) let many radios share the same frequencies without interference. Cellularizing and sectorizing, using low power equipment, can make the data-carrying capacity of a radio network practically infinite.
What's needed to take advantage of this is better equipment, and Moore's Law guarantees its arrival. Instead of putting $1,500 into wires (the present estimated cost of delivering broadband to a home), tomorrow's $300 radios can bring broadband to the neighborhood. You upgrade by changing radios. A little engineering can bring data signals from subscribers to fiber runs at very low cost. And the cost is just going to get lower.
5. Moore's Law is Irresistible
This is the most important point of all. Governments can't repeal Moore's Law. Corporations can't fight Moore's Law.
This means all the actions of the Powell FCC aimed at protecting wired monopolies are doomed to fail. Keeping ISPs off Bell wires won't protect the Bells. Even the current attempt to force 802.11 providers to subsidize their wired competitors, by "contributing" to a "universal service fund" (which radios make unnecessary) will only delay the inevitable.
The value of wired networks is going to hit zero long before the wires can be depreciated. This will hit the markets like a dozen Enrons going off at once. There's no way to prevent it - those with a Clue prepare for it.
Just look around you. AT&T Broadband cable, upgraded for digital service, goes down my street, yet an increasing portion of my new neighbors have satellite dishes, including oblong dishes for broadband data. Why? Because it costs less - everyone gets upgraded when the satellite is changed, and satellites are subject to Moore's Law. Cellular calling plans already cost less than those for wired phones - why have a wired phone?
The right public policy for Moore's Law is to let the market (and science) work its will. Increase the amount of "unlicensed" spectrum available for things like 802.11 and make the FCC more of an arbitrator where cases of interference can be decided. The current policy of the Powell FCC, aimed at protecting incumbents and monopolists based on old assumptions, is as wrong as was the Kennard policy of trying to "auction" frequencies like they were train rights-of-way.
Your Clue is to get behind Moore's Law, now, in communications as well as computing. Don't look back.