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Wireless World: Mesh network mainstreaming

By
GENE J. KOPROWSKI, UPI Science News

CHICAGO, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- A light goes out on a desolate street corner in Los Angeles -- one of 240,000 streetlights in that city. For decades, the only way city bureaucrats learned the bulbs were burned out was when they received a call -- some 500 a week on average -- from panicked consumers telling them there was an outage.

No longer. A new wireless mesh network, linking the lights to computer servers, notifies managers at the city's bureau of street lights that a lamp went out on North Broadway or North San Fernando.

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"An employee at his or her desktop can monitor and control the system," said Dave Schuellerman, a spokesman for General Electric's consumer and industrial products division.

"It helps to make the maintenance and repair operations more efficient and it improves a city's ability to keep more lights on more of the time -- a factor that can make people and businesses feel more secure," he told UPI's Wireless World.

Technology companies from GE to Motorola are making mobile communications seamless across cities. Hot spots for wireless-fidelity networks are being transformed into hot zones covering entire metro areas. That is leading to the rollout of scalable broadband wireless networks. In the coming years, the trends could mean many major metropolitan areas will have wireless mesh networks that deliver not only data, but also video, voice and location monitoring services over the Internet.

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The networks -- which originally were developed for military applications -- use a combination of technologies, such as WiFi and 802.11 a, b, or g, among others, to link wide areas wirelessly. The technology enables an ad-hoc approach to network development, utilizing older applications that already are in place, with newer ones that have just been developed.

Cory Edwards, a spokesman for Strix Systems in Westlake Village, Calif., a leading player in the nascent mesh networking business, told Wireless World these technologies are combined to create a "backbone" of mobile service. This is somewhat akin to the fiber-optic backbone that fueled the rise of the Internet during the 1990s.

Consumers and investors are increasingly eyeing mesh networks, not just for metropolitan-size networks, but for those inside corporations and even private homes. Just last week, Motorola Corp. disclosed it had reached a deal to acquire a smaller firm, MeshNetworks Inc. of Orlando, Fla., a developer of mobile mesh networking and position-location technologies. The deal, executives said, will help make mesh technology available to a wider audience.

"This acquisition will provide Motorola with technologies that will have a significant benefit for customers across all of our businesses, ranging from mission-critical and enterprise markets to automotive and home-entertainment applications," said Greg Brown, president of Motorola's commercial, government and industrial solutions division, in a statement.

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The technology built by MeshNetworks is called QDMA. Developed initially for municipal and emergency services networks, it operates on the 2.4-gigahertz radio spectrum and can transmit data wirelessly to vehicles being driven at speeds up to 190 miles an hour. WiFi, by comparison, can transmit data only to vehicles moving at about 30 miles per hour.

Smaller, entrepreneurial companies are not going to let Motorola -- with its $27.1 billion in sales -- have the market all to itself. They are rolling out new mesh-networking technologies, both this quarter and next year, that are making the race for technology dominance in mesh networking quite competitive.

"In early December, Strix will announce a new outdoor mesh system," Edwards said. The company already has deployed municipal mesh networks in California and Texas.

Among other projects in the works:

-- Smarthome Inc. of Irvine, Calif., a maker of home automation products, is working with a consortium of consumer electronics companies, called Zigbee, that is launching wireless mesh networks early next year. Zigbee will enable consumers to remotely control lights, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, security systems, home entertainment systems and other devices and appliances, a spokesman for Smarthome told Wireless World.

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-- Sonos Inc. of Santa Barbara, Calif., will begin shipping its digital music system products next January. The product uses mesh networking to distribute digital music over a home network.

"Back in the middle of 2003, Bill Gates was on the record when he said that the future of in-home wireless networking was going to be mesh," Thomas L. Meyer, a spokesman for Sonos, told Wireless World. "Sonos is the first consumer-electronics product to deliver on Gates' vision."

-- Sensicast Systems of Needham, Mass., has developed a wireless mesh network platform to monitor the temperature of large motors. The company recently signed a deal to embed wireless nodes in industrial motors, which account for about two-thirds of all the commercial power use in the United States.

"The Department of Energy is estimating 120 trillion BTUs in savings," Anthony Citrano, a spokesman for Sensicast, told Wireless World.

-- WebGen Systems Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., also is using wireless mesh networks to automate energy consumption in buildings.

-- WiBLAST Communications of Nantucket, Mass., has installed a WiFi and mesh network on Nantucket Island, using mesh technology from Tropos, and another developer.

-- Millennial Net Inc. of Burlington, Mass., is developing interconnected sensors and monitors that work on a mesh network.

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"These networks, sometimes known as the Internet of Things, provide new eyes and ears into dynamic systems and can gather previously unattainable information into systems and processes," Christina Stenson, a spokeswoman for Millennial Net, told Wireless World. "Mesh networking technology is being adapted for applications including building automation, industrial automation, medical monitoring and supply chain tracking."

Experts said mesh networks provide a cost savings over land-based infrastructure. To cover an entire city with seamless WiFi networks would require the connection of thousands of T-1 -- high-speed digital telephone lines -- for each WiFi transmitter. That could cost hundreds of dollars for every 300 feet of coverage. With mesh networks, data, voice and video can hop around a city with fewer intermediate connections.

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Wireless World is a weekly series by UPI examining the social, political and economic ramifications of wireless technologies. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com.

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