NYTimes.com Article: The Corner Internet Network vs. the Cellular Giants
Mon, 4 Mar 2002 15:44:48 -0500 (EST)
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Munchkins appear as NANs, eh? I hadn't heard the buzzcronym, but it has its appeal... Anyway, it's hit the Times, now, so it must be real!
The Corner Internet Network vs. the Cellular Giants
March 4, 2002
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO, March 3 - 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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