Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Meraki, Mesh, WiMAX, and White Space

Early this year I wrote about shared access to wireless networks and in particular a guerrilla wireless device called Meraki. As this article explains, Meraki 'makes WiFi equipment and sells its WiFi repeaters and network gateways to residents who volunteer to deploy the equipment on rooftops or on their windowsills to create a wireless network. In San Francisco, Meraki is picking up the tab for the Internet service and provides free access through the wireless network to anyone without advertising. Meraki is building a citywide network in San Francisco it hopes to complete by 2009. About 150,000 of the city's 860,000 residents use the network.' And this one gives an example of Meraki use in a smaller community. Last month, Meraki announced an program to enlist local businesses in expanding no-cost urban wireless access.

Today, news is emerging of an FCC decision that could give a huge boost to this grassroots effort. In a unanimous decision the Commission decided yesterday to open unused portions of the TV broadcast spectrum for wireless communication. Details are sparse but as one writer says, 'The decision is a big victory for public interest groups and technology companies such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.' The valleys in this image shows the white spaces that could be made available:

These vacant spaces in the spectrum are to be available for free, unlicensed use. They're better for wireless access that current Wi-Fi technology because -- being longer-waved -- they can carry greater amounts of data and reach a wider geographic area. I've put links to the FCC announcements below.

The connection between Meraki and white-space lies in a technology called Mesh. Mesh networks are self-configuring. If a signal is disrupted, it is automatically re-routed to a working node. Meraki is based on this Mesh capability and the TV white-space is also expected to use it. Simple, low-cost, easily-deployed Meraki devices are expected to enable communities to vastly expand free online connectivity. As one source puts it 'Through use of mesh networks, unserved or underserved communities could readily and cost effectively create their own network extensions as alternative means of Internet connectivity. In addition, because mesh networks are easily deployed, they can offer a means of communications if existing networks fail during catastrophes.'

The Commission also voted unanimously to permit a merger between two wireless network providers, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire. Google, which has been pushing for this approval, is -- along with Intel and other major players -- investing billions of dollars in the merged company. The big companies are betting that the new company, called Clearwire, will advance a wireless standard called WiMAX to offer super high-speed wireless access. WiMAX devices have been expensive, but the cost could drop as more come into use. They are compatible with Mesh technology and as a result Meraki devices can be used in some WiMAX environments. As WiMAX explands, there's potential for Meraki/Mesh expansion as well.

No one knows how the white-space decision will play out. There's plenty of opposition from cable providers and those who currently provide internet services to paying subscribers. The former stand to lose a great deal of business since just about everything subscribers now get via cable they may in future be able to obtain at much less cost. The latter stand to lose a lucrative business since they currently charge monthly fees that are much higher than their expenses in providing them. In addition to greatly improving communications among first-responders during disasters and to providing low-cost or no-cost service in areas that are now unserved or underserved, white-space mesh networks could give home-owners a cost-effective means of monitoring home-wide energy usage, provide inexpensive network links among home appliances for service use, and permit organizations, such as schools and libraries, to set up low-cost internal networks.

Just keep in mind that much is yet unknown about the useful potential of white space - or even about the extent of its availability. Also, for all the advantages, there are probably many downsides. I'm thinking about the greatly increased potential for passive surveillance, that is to say a great expansion in the number of video cams in public places.

A group called the Wireless Internet Alliance has produced a short video explaining white space and its potential:
Welcome to the White Space (5 min. Youtube):

Here are links to the FCC releases:
- News Release: Word | Acrobat
- Martin Statement: Word | Acrobat
- Copps Statement: Word | Acrobat
- Adelstein Statement: Word | Acrobat
- Tate Statement: Word | Acrobat
- McDowell Statement: Word | Acrobat


"this article" - Meraki rolls out mesh partner program

"this one" - Downtown Hillsboro becoming Wi-Fi area

"program to enlist local businesses" -

"open unused portions of TV airways for wireless communication" - FCC approves white space to deliver wireless broadband

"one writer" - FCC approves white space to deliver wireless broadband

Image source: -

"one source" - Examples Of Consumer Benefits From “tv White Spaces” Legislation (pdf)

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