by Mark Long, newsfactor.com
The race has begun to make wireless networks more viable for cities,
large corporate headquarters, university campuses, and other
environments where the technology used in today's Wi-Fi hotspots might
be insufficient on its own.
Several companies -- including tech giant Motorola and smaller shops
such as Firetide, Tropos Networks, BelAir Networks, and Strix Systems
-- have been pursuing a wireless broadband network strategy, known as
'mesh,' to help extend the reach of wireless networks.
The ingenious technology works in such a way that users who are out of
range of an Internet-access point do not need a dedicated connection
of their own. Instead, they can piggyback their Internet requests on
devices scattered around a geographic location. These devices relay
the requests back to the central connection. In theory, long chains of
such devices can provide Internet connectivity far from the actual
One company leading the way in the march to mesh, SkyPilot Networks in
Santa Clara, California, is applying the technology to serve both
residential broadband customers and city workers.
"We are the only company thus far to use the same mesh backbone
infrastructure to provide both broadband Ethernet access and Wi-Fi,"
said SkyPilot CEO Bob Machlin. He said that such a network can scale
to all kinds of distances and capacities, and that having a single
integrated network makes it easier to manage the system as well as to
maintain quality of service.
"Today it is very easy to do a Google search on the term 'metro Wi-Fi'
and come up with list of a thousand projects out there," Machlin
said. "They range from connectivity for public employees to ones that
add on free public service and public safety connectivity from fire to
At least one Internet service provider (ISP), however, is sold on the
mesh-networks idea. MetroFi in Mountain View, California, now offers
residential customers in both Cupertino and Santa Clara Wi-Fi services
for which SkyPilot provided the components.
"The deployments cover 20 square miles and use 25 SkyPilot mesh
infrastructure nodes per square mile," said MetroFi CEO Chuck
Haas. "And our service is available today for $19.95, or about half
the cost of subscribing to DSL or cable."
Another benefit of MetroFi's new service is that subscribers can
access the system using a laptop from anywhere within the community's
Although the company does not offer public-safety communications in
Cupertino or Santa Clara, Haas said MetroFi is talking with other California
communities about providing cities with such networks under an 'all-in'
pricing of $50,000 per square mile, inclusive of site surveys, network
design, equipment, and installation.
Beyond its potential metropolitan-wide applications, SkyPilot's technology
has facilitated the rollout of broadband services in rural environments
where DSL and cable providers fear to tread.
Larry Bowman, a partner at SkyWest Broadband, has deployed SkyPilot's
technology to cover residential customers in Grass Valley, California, in
the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Bowman said that SkyPilot's mesh-routing technology allows the packets of
data that compose all Internet uploads and downloads to take several paths
in order to get from Point A to Point B. As a result, his network's data
travels automatically around hills, buildings, or dense foliage.
'The way the system works is that you have one main antenna, which SkyPilot
calls the Sky-Gateway,' Bowman said. 'Reaching out from there are the
extenders that gather the information and forward it on to the main antenna.
In fact, I am standing on the top of a hill as we speak, installing an
extender in order to get into a valley that cannot reach the main gateway
The third essential piece of the system is the hardware installed at each
subscriber's residence, which SkyPilot calls the Sky-Connector. 'It has an
antenna and mounts somewhere on or near the home, and is connected to a
wireless router within the home or to an Ethernet card installed in a
computer,' Bowman said.
Bowman estimated that with the single Sky-Gateway that he and his partners
have in place, and with enough strategically placed Sky-Extenders, SkyWest
eventually could serve as many as 500 rural subscribers in Grass Valley.
With Internet access service priced at $45 per month, SkyWest expects to
begin turning a profit within six months.
"There's a local housing community where we have almost 100 percent
penetration already," Bowman said. "We're their heroes."
"Because it features the ability to allow traffic to be routed around
problem points, mesh gives certain advantages," said Yankee Group senior
analyst Lindsay Schroth. "Due to its self-sealing capabilities, you don't
have to have [a dedicated connection between access points]."
The value is in instances in which mesh 'will definitely make sense from the
viewpoint of broader availability,' said Schroth. "For example, when the city
of San Francisco talks about providing public access, the set-up will not be
purely Wi-Fi," she said. Rather, it will incorporate what SkyPilot has been
talking about doing. But the application of mesh technology might not be the
best design in every case, Schroth added.
Even so, laptop manufacturers and software developers are beginning to
eye mesh technology as a way to create mobile Wi-Fi networks even
without having to place dedicated devices around a geographic area.
One company, PacketHop, recently released software, called TrueMesh,
that gives Windows XP laptops the ability to route wireless data is if
they were dedicated access points. If the technology were distributed
by a major laptop vendor, such as Dell or Hewlett-Packard, mobile
users might never be out of range of a wireless connection.
Copyright 2005 NewsFactor Network, Inc.
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