Moving toward mesh networks

Vendors are working on new technologies to deliver on the promise of ubiquitous broadband

The dream of broadband connectivity that’s as ubiquitous as the air you breathe still is not reality, and perhaps it would be a cruel pun to tell you not to hold your breath.

Just to recap, the original vision of peer-to-peer wireless networking was that you could use any Wi-Fi chip found in any device to gain access to “the network,” from which you could hop, skip, and jump to anywhere in the world without the need for any centralized infrastructure.

The final piece of the wireless puzzle -- universal acceptance and use of a single standard that would allow free, instant, unfettered access without any administrative encumbrances -- is still just over the horizon, although I think it will happen, if not from Wi-Fi as mesh, then from some other as-yet-unnamed technology.

Nevertheless, the vision took one small step forward this month when Cisco entered the mesh networks business with a centrally controlled mesh architecture and access points. What Cisco is doing is a far cry from the truly ad hoc, peer-to-peer mesh networks we were promised, but it’s a beginning.

A mesh network, for those unfamiliar with the technology, has two key features that set it apart from the more typical Wi-Fi network. First, mesh operating systems contain routing algorithms that allow data to find the best route -- meaning the fastest, the most secure, or however you want to define it -- back to the network to the server. If one node goes down, the system routes its traffic to another node. It is at this level that mesh is very similar to peer-to-peer networks.

The other unique mesh attribute is that routers and access points can be wireless -- they don’t have to be hard-wired into the network.

By combining these two technologies, companies and municipalities are starting to reduce the cost of “lighting up” outdoor areas, whether these areas are as small as a corporate campus or as big as the city of Philadelphia. Assuming you have a power source for your wireless access points and “pole rights,” as Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group, puts it, you can cover a large area in a fraction of the time it would take to wire the same area with standard Wi-Fi. At the same time, mesh networks increase the reliability of wireless connections.

Mathias predicts that the cellular carriers will co-opt the technology and offer subscribers units that support both cellular and Wi-Fi mesh as a way to off-load heavy traffic and improve reliability.

I have my doubts about that. I still don’t think the carriers like anything that has to do with Wi-Fi. The carriers remind me of the wicked queen who smiles at Snow White in public but at night goes home, looks in the mirror, and asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?”

Up until now, the carriers have been told by the mirror, “You are.” But one day, when mesh networking grows up, I predict the mirror may have a completely different response.

In the short term, look for mesh to become the standard for surveillance, asset tracking, and -- unfortunately -- metering devices. Why unfortunately? Expect soon to see parking meters communicating wirelessly through a mesh network, either using credit cards for payment and identification or else equipped with wireless cameras, capable of issuing a ticket one nanosecond after your time has expired.

Ain’t progress grand?

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