city after city, high-speed wireless access may be the next
Steven M. Cherry
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 summerGoogle
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.
ma, no wires! Spectrum editor Steven Cherry rides real and virtual
superhighways near Orlando, Fla. His laptop is logged into a
test network created by MeshNetworks to demonstrate broadband
data rates with full mobility.
also hurtling down an actual superhighwayU.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
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?"
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 experimentit
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.
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 futurea
world where we can teleconference each other, watch news and
entertainment in real time, order from online catalogs, pay
our bills, and answer e-mailanywhere, anytime, on ever
smaller and sleeker handheld devices powered by ever more
powerful microprocessors and software.
a world would be an enormous boon for some huge industries
that haven't had much to cheer about over the past two yearscomputers,
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.
the new networksMesh, Ricochet, and others, such as
the 140-km-long one run by start-up BroadBand Solutions Co.
(BBSC) in metropolitan Salt Lake Cityhave 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.
not meant to supplant Wi-Fi so much as to supplement itin
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.
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
started by snaking through a starkly beautiful landscape of
mountains and prairies, cruising Interstate 80 toward Sandy,
Utah, home of BroadBand Solutions.
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.
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.
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 networkand show BBSC where bottlenecks
are developing and where best to allocate new resources.
aerobic eight-hour tour in the company of three of BBSC's
bright young engineersTrevor Paskett, 22; Josh Gottwald,
29; and Bryan Scott, 27I 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.
stop: a large office complex called Jordan Commons Tower , 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.
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. 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.
and Canopy radios operate in the 5.7-5.8-GHz frequency, while
IEEE 802.11b-compliant Aironet uses 2.4 GHzall 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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 blizzardDenver's worst in 90 yearsfinally
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.
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.
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 agebasically, 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.
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.
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
servicespolice, fire, traffic, and so onare going
to provide critical toeholds for their technology and products.
But MeshNetworks vision is more futuristic.
What makes it different is the mesh.
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
pointsthey 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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