The WiFi Wireless Mesh acquires a new skill: voice, over IP

by Jon Anderson | posted on 31 May 2004

The Mesh is a simple (for the user) way of linking a whole network of wireless computers to each other, so that they share all resources that are in the network, including Internet access. The LocustWorld Mesh is by far the world's most numerous one, used mainly to bring broadband to areas where the world's telcos can't reach. Now (writes LocustWorld architect Jon Anderson) they've added VoIP to its other accomplishments

The Wireless Mesh provides global voice communications to callers world-wide, over existing wireless networks running the LocustWorld system. By upgrading the mesh to support SIP routing, any wireless mesh network can be voice enabled in a few moments. Voice traffic gets top priority on the mesh, so the quality of the call is not affected by the demands from broadband data users. With a VoIP mesh customers can receive incoming calls and make outgoing calls, reaching the public telephone network world-wide for the price of a local call, and connecting to other internet voice users for free.

LocustWorld had first hand experience of the benefits of meshed VoIP services, during their recent trip to Computex in Taiwan. We got a completely unexpected bonus when we went to Taipei for Computex", my colleague Richard Lander reported from Taiwan. He told me:

"As soon as our mesh was up at the show we had instant voice connectivity back to the office, and with customers world wide". Actually, while that's quite true, it was true even before he had the show mesh running, because Mesh voice isn't limited to Mesh users. He was able to tie his laptop into our Mesh here in London as soon as he reached his hotel.

The Mesh Switchboard

We now have a LocustWorld VoIP switchboard. It's under my desk in my laboratory here in London, to prove a point. All it does is to route calls to SIP phones. Outgoing calls can be made to public telephone numbers world wide at local rates, and incoming calls can be placed directly to all VoIP phones within the coverage area of the mesh. The benefits of VoIP as a virtual office tool are made all the more apparent when combined with the range and capacity of the wireless mesh.

The thing that we think makes us really different from other "soup-to-nuts" voice SIP server companies, is that we aren't tied to any one. When you run a LocustWorld SIP server, its link to the PSTN can be no more than a single phone line linked to an interface card. But when you reach the SIP network, you aren't stuck with just one startup company. The "switchboard" functions as a virtual PABX, and goes out to any of three (so far) SIP service providers. So if one dies, the call will route to the next.

To use it, you log into your home switchboard. It recognises you, and places your call. Either, it goes to another SIP phone on the mesh, or it uses the PSTN.

Providing Voice over IP services with the Wireless Mesh is generating a lot of additional interest in the LocustWorld system. It means that wireless ISPs who are offering high speed internet can now become virtual telcos in the same area. That makes the mesh an even more attractive proposition for operators and customers.

A constant theme reported from LocustWorld meshes all over the world is that they just keep on growing. One good thing leads to another, and each mesh has a habit of growing way beyond the original expectations of the operator. The smallest mesh, of course, is a single MeshBox; but they quickly get friends linked in to them, and it's really not possible to say how big the biggest will be in a year. And adding voice services into the mesh provides further stimulus for expansion and additional value to offer existing customers.

With meshes installed all over the world, and an increasingly mobile population with friends, family and business connections in far away countries, voice is a great service to run over the wireless mesh back home, reaching out to the rest of the planet.

An application that really works

It's still early days in the VoIP business, and there is an exciting buzz around these new developments. By showing that the applications clearly work, with live operations and enthusiastic users, LocustWorld are a clear leader in wireless VoIP deployment. All of the experiences of Mesh VoIP are positive and the mesh operators using VoIP have great plans for further deployment and network expansion.

One key factor in the implementation of VoIP on the mesh is the adherence to open standards. Open Standards are a common theme throughout LocustWorld's work in networking, ensuring compatibility and value in wireless broadband services. Using Open Standards on VoIP promotes healthy open market competition for support services and interconnections. A VoIP Mesh can use multiple competing telephone carriers and a wide choice of VoIP terminal equipment, avoiding reliance on a single device, service provider or product.

The Mesh is about many-to-many communication, and our support for open standards in VoIP reflects this philosophy.

LocustWorld will continue to work on developing addition technical functions to support more advanced and specialised voice applications. In addition to incoming and outgoing calls with the public telephone network, mesh operators can also offer full featured PBX functions like voice-mail, call waiting, voice-mail to e-mail, conference calling, call queuing and automated attendant applications. The Mesh offers VoIP support in a convenient and cost effective package that integrates in with existing high speed internet connections, with prioritised quality of service to ensure that the voice connections are maintained a the optimum level.

New, serious implications

Of course, VoIP does have some serious implications for bandwidth consumption and capacity planning for the mesh operator.

Although each VoIP call uses relatively little bandwidth, these calls all stack up, and as the popularity of the system grows bandwidth capacity can become a consideration. With detailed traffic management and tracking, the mesh provides valuable management information to the operator, helping them to understand the pattern of use of bandwidth on the network, pre-empting bottlenecks, letting them take action before the success of the system creates a resource problem.

It also has the hooks to handle billing to individual users. Again, that's a new consideration for most mesh operators, but potentially, a profitable one.

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