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Ebusiness in the Enterprise – April 01, 2003

The wireless mesh-men cometh

By Sean Mc Grath

It is 8 a.m. on a Monday morning in the foyer of one of Dublin's best known hotels. I have adopted a pose not unusual for me. I am parked in a comfy chair, bouncing a laptop on my knee, preparing for a business meeting. All around me, oblivious to the senses I possess as a Homo Sapien, radio signals are bouncing around. The radio signals are not U2 songs, or news broadcasts. They are coded ones and zeros - an uncountable number of them moving with terrifying speed and information density.

Encoded in this digital cacophony on this Monday morning, is the happy chatter of a thousand HTTP requests and spam e-mails going to and fro.

Yes, you guessed it. I'm sitting in a Wi-Fi hotspot. But wait! Here I am in the middle of a seething den of connectivity and yet I sit here, fiddling with my tie, a Wi-Fi virgin. What embarrassment! I don't even have a Wi-Fi connector built into my laptop. My technology is so last-year. What shame I bring upon the tribe!

All this will soon change for me I think - and hope. However, the strongest candidate catalyst for my move to Wi-Fi is not what you might think.  You see, I will not become Wi-Fi-enabled to facilitate my infrequent visits to swanky Dublin Hotels. Rather, my electromagnetic rebirth will happen thanks to my very frequent inhabitation of an area of Ireland (the North West[1]) which is sparsely populated and connectivity challenged.

Necessity is the mother of invention and in the digital connectivity world, the invention is Wi-Fi. All over the country, there are enthusiastic people, organically growing interconnected Wi-Fi systems that are slowly, but surely, covering the territory. Largely under the radar of big business and regulation, they are building a powerful, decentralized mesh network based on 802.11 wireless technology.

My situation, working as I do in the seaside town of Enniscrone[2], County Sligo is an illustration of the way meshing networks are emerging and how they can change the traditional land-based topology of networks. I work just a couple of miles from the town of Killala[3] yet it takes me the best part of an hour to drive there even if there is no traffic on the road. Why? Because Killala and Enniscrone stare at each other across an expanse of water known as Killala Bay. In Wi-Fi terms, these communities are genuinely next door to each other with an uninhibited line of sight from one to the other. Perfect for Wi-Fi.

Further north and east of Enniscrone, in Dromore West[4], County Sligo, a colleague has climbed the necessary mountains and spires investigating line of site possibilities in his own local area. If Enniscrone gets connected, he will mesh with it from Dromore West...

And so it will spread, like a fungus, decentralized, eclectic and for the most part unfettered by big business maneuvering or regulation.

This is an exciting time to live in a bandwidth challenged zone. How long with the hegemony last I wonder? An acquaintance is tinkering with running Voice over IP (VoIP[5]) on top of his nascent Wi-Fi network. Voice conversations, masquerading as ones and zeros, transported over this organically grown, oligopoly-free zone - with no monthly call bills.

No monthly call bills! Now there is a novel idea for a voice network. I suspect that this fiscally interesting aspect of the mesh network counter-culture will be the one that finally causes big business to sit up and take notice.

Executives in businesses likely to be impacted by mesh networks but inclined to dismiss them as fads or a 'geek thing' need to catch up on their reading.

I suggest they read 'Information Rules' by Shapiro and Varian[6] - in particular with regard to network effects and 'tippy markets'. From there, I suggest they read 'The Inventor's Dillemma' by Clayton Christiansen[7] and 'Smart Mobs'[8] by Howard Rheingold.

Anyone inclined to argue that such a messy approach to wireless cannot work because of all the interference it will generated should - run -not walk - over to David Weinberger's article 'The myth of interference' [9].

When the executives have finished that lot, they should climb the nearest mountain or spire and establish a line of site with what is really going on in their industry. The future is wireless.

The wireless mesh-men cometh. Deal with it.

[1] http://www.johnthemap.co.uk/sligo/maps.html
[2] http://www.johnthemap.co.uk/sligo/enniscrone.html
[3] http://www.goireland.com/scripts/low/Area.asp?AreaType=C&AreaID=187
[4] http://www.local.ie/general/map/sligo.shtml
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/comment/story/0,12449,863850,00.html
[6] http://www.inforules.com/
[7] ISBN 0875845851
[8] http://www.smartmobs.com/index.html
[9] http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/12/spectrum/index.html