Look closely next time you stop at a traffic light — it could contain an access point for a wireless mesh network.
Multiple applications are being developed for wireless mesh networks to enable users in the vicinity to bounce video, audio, text and other signals among their devices. Public utilities, police and fire departments, and airports are just a few of a growing list of users subscribing to the technology to make their operations more efficient.
A mesh network is a wireless network that maintains continuous connections by hopping from node to node until a destination is reached. The technology turns every client device into a router, enabling an instant peer-to-peer network among users.
Motorola is an early developer of wireless mesh networks. The company has capitalized on its existing relationships with municipalities to offer a new type of network to improve service to citizens. Also on the horizon are applications for the private sector.
In an exclusive interview with TechNewsWorld, Motorola Director of Operations Chip Yager discussed the direction of wireless mesh networks development.
TechNewsWorld: There’s no shortage now of wireless gadgets and network systems. So, to clear up any confusion, what do you think is unique about mesh networks?
Mesh networks, in general, are unique in the fact that they are commonly thought of as self-healing, self-deploying networks. … The Internet is what we think of as a wired mesh network. If you put a router or server into the system, the rest of the Internet recognizes it and makes use of it as part of the total network.
In a wireless version of that, any device that can sense other devices in its network can use it as part of the network for routing.
In the case of city networks, that makes it easy to deploy, because you can use low spots like traffic light poles and street lights to hang access points and have connections between them go over the air — along with access for consumers who want to use their WiFi devices.
TechNewsWorld: How would the common consumer notice something like this?
What makes it cool for consumers, cities and public safety organizations is that you can take a broadband connection that you are used to only having at your desk — or maybe it’s WiFi at your home or coffee shop — and take it throughout the city.
If you are a consumer, of course, you can imagine having that WiFi connectivity as you carry your laptop or iPhone around. But think about it: If you are a public safety officer or first responder, having a wireless WiFi or broadband connection with you at all times allows you to take your mobile office with you [and] to do all the work that you would have to go back to the station for in your vehicle — get live video, download or stream to your police car as you’re on the way to the scene, get full color pictures of people who are wanted or vehicles you are looking for — so that you can be instantly informed of what the latest information is.
For the EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) person, it’s the ability to send the vital signs and condition of a patient to the hospital before they get there. So, you can imagine the benefits. Cities get benefits by utilizing these networks for surveillance of public areas, to lower crime or protect public park areas, run their traffic lights, read meters or even manage parking spaces.
TechNewsWorld: Has the private sector caught on to this?
There’s been a lot of private sector activity from either private systems run by cities or enterprises that have set up wireless networks on their facilities or campuses. We have a lot of industrial applications around ports and airports.
TechNewsWorld: Much of this technology relies on peer-to-peer cooperation. Are there any social applications?
Instead of being in the same coffee shop together and sharing a WiFi access point there, that access point they’re sharing could be throughout the city. Anytime that broadband connection is there, I think you can image the type of application that can grow to take that as its own.
A lot of people are finding a new use and love of the SMS (short message service) feature, now that they have an iPhone or something else that has that broadband connectivity and the ability to access Internet information all the time in a nice format. Having that WiFi around you all the time makes it that much faster and easier.
TechNewsWorld: How much effort has Motorola invested in developing its own line of mesh network systems?
First of all, within Motorola’s labs there was a very early recognition of the benefits of wireless mesh networking. So, a lot of the early patents and intellectual property around mesh networking were designed by Motorola.
In addition, we purchased a company called Mesh Networks in early 2005 that was one of the leaders in mesh networking, especially for public safety application. So, the combination of their products and the patent portfolio we already had has given us a dominant leadership in the wireless mesh space.
TechNewsWorld: What does your competition look like?
There are a number of companies in this area, and there is a wide range of them. But like any new technology, it collects startups that have an idea and the wherewithal to put up a beta system someplace and try to get a [market position] for their version of the technology.
TechNewsWorld: Are these networks within cities’ budgets? Are they expensive?
I can’t think of a less expensive wide area network that Motorola offers because WiFi technology and the basic componentry that makes up these radios has [lowered] the cost curve. It allows us to deploy access points in the the US$2,000 to $3,000 list price range.
And when you think about building out a wide area system compared to a cellular system — or a WiMax system, or any kind of big wireless system — you can think of that as really within the reach of cities and companies to go ahead and do it on their own.
TechNewsWorld: Where is mesh technology in its stage of development? What can we expect in the next couple of years?
Mesh networking, in general, is very well established, and the basic mesh routing algorithms have been well developed on wired networks. Wireless mesh networks, I think, are still growing in terms of their applications and the use of the technology. …
But I think you’re going to find over time that meshing technology will become part of a wide range of protocols, devices and networks that will make them all work a little bit better. I think there’s a long way to go in terms of applications for wireless meshing, but the industry is pretty well established now that WiFi mesh networks for municipal wireless networks will be around for quite a while.