Whistling in the dark: the Established comms community hides from WiFi

by Guy Kewney | posted on 11 March 2003

A year ago, only a few specialists knew about mesh networks, or "parasitic" networks, as they were known before someone decided this sounded aggressive and negative and called them "cooperative" networks. Experts said, patronisingly, that it would be very clever, of course, but irrelevant: nobody could make them. Then someone did make one. Did the experts change their minds? Did they heck ...

Guy Kewney

The guys from LocustWorld just got back from a tour around Europe, with audiences who greeted them like rock stars. What they were showing was an instant wide-area network, put together from ultra-cheap PC components and 802.11 wireless, organised into a mesh.

They had a bike-mesh and a car-mesh and "tons more" reports Richard Lander, co-founder of LocustWorld with technology pioneer Jon Anderson - and everywhere they went, people came to mock, and went away converted.

You can see some of the photographs from Denmark

of the events. They show the results of "build-an-antenna" classes, strange bits of instant-network hardware.

And if that isn't enough, there was the wireless mesh they set up in the Highlands last week. The same mad scenes of enthusiasm ...

Ever since we first mentioned LocustWorld here, they've been in the headlines, and when Intel announced, at the Developer Forum, that it reckoned it was possible to build a mesh, the subject has become respectable.

But the establishment is determined to ignore it all! If you doubt me, have a look at this:

There's a fascinating discussion aired in a very useful article on 802.11-Planet. Summarising, it's a look at the Meshbox mentioned here on NewsWireless.Net - and a few quotes from industry experts.

Here's a prize example:

"Regardless of the number of free networks that are available, I think that the people who depend on it will be willing -- actually prefer -- to pay for it."

That's from David Chamberlain, research director at Probe Research, who "sees little or no impact on the established wireless players. He says that regardless of the extensions, 802.11 is still a local area network and can't replace a wide area network ... He also notes that quality of service will be dodgy at best."

And absurdly: "Chamberlain also says that local Bells will find a way to get their cut. 'If they don't, they'll eventually find the small-time bandwidth sharers and stop them,' says Chamberlain. 'If it's the WiFi providers such as T-mobile and Boingo, you will find that they will compete on other terms by offering value-added services, quality of service and the ability to roam among other subscription-based systems."

It's called whistling in the dark. Of course people would rather pay more! And no doubt at all that large, debt-ridden companies can compete with small, cooperative ones simply by offering unneeded services at inflated prices.

All too well, I remember this sort of approach by the established data processing community when the first personal computers started to appear. Rather than looking at their potential, they mocked the early Pets and Tandys for their primitive early manifestation. Digital Equipment thought the whole thing was hilarious; it counted the number of chips sold to Commodore and Radio Shack, and pointed out that this wouldn't keep DEC's own silicon plant going for more than a day.

Today, DEC is a memory of a company swallowed by Compaq which was swallowed by H-P - a legend of arrogance lost like Rabbit trying to unbounce Tigger in the fog. And Intel, which makes pretty nearly nothing except personal computer processors, is many, many times bigger than DEC ever dreamed of being.

Of course, today's mesh networks, and today's primitive pub-based WiFi hotspot providers, aren't a match for Vodafone, any more than Intel was a match for Digital Equipment in 1980. But what is the future?

The future is that anybody can build a node of a mesh, all by themselves, just by downloading the MeshBox software onto a bootable CD. Add a wireless access point and a broadband connection, and you've become a WISP - total cost, including a 300 pound PC, around 400 quid. How could Vodafone match that?

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