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Building a Free Wireless Backbone? 24

DigiWood asks: "Ok. I have been remembering the old days of BBS's. When you sent mail from one system to another it had to dial up and transmit it. Given the ability to wirelessly interconnect nodes in a city why hasn't anyone suggested that wireless server interconnects get put up? I know that people have 802.11b public access points. What I am talking about is aggregating these wireless islands together to form a sort of wireless backbone. A free wireless backbone. The only place you'd need a pop is the downlink into the hardwired internet. There could be multiple downlinks. With the advent of companies like Vonage that supply IP telephony the local telco could be cut out. I am not looking for a debate over which telco is worst. Nor any of the major media provider bashing as of late. Just a discussion of the whys and why nots to putting this together."
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Building a Free Wireless Backbone?

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  • Is current wireless technology (WLAN that is) robust enough for a backbone? It's still tehnology in it's infancy, right?

    • Iwht enough connections are redundent dynamic rerouting - it should work.

      The reason it doesnt is that any large scale implementation would be stopped (somehow) by media companies - wireless is only used by terrorists!
      • by Anonymous Coward
        If this becomes too popular, the established providers could set up their own (private) wireless networks which would interfere with the free public networks. One would have to use directional antennas to achieve ranges which could be useful for "backbone" purposes anyway, so maybe this isn't a big issue, but anyone attempting this should be on the lookout for artificially created problems. Not everybody likes the idea of free (and possibly unaccountable) public networks.

        • Legally, this is not a tempting option for telcos, since the WLAN frequency may be used by anyone as long as they don't block others using it.

          Technically, it's going to be hard for them as well, since people will be using directed antennas, as you pointed out. Also, the protocol is pretty robust.

          The major problems are fog and obstacles like trees (especially when their leaves are wet). I wouldn't mind about telcos showing their environmentally friendship by planting trees, but I guess they have the same problem with GSM signals...
      • The reason it doesnt is that any large scale implementation would be stopped (somehow) by media companies

        No it wouldn't. The vast majority of that traffic will be going too and from the hardwired networks. There's no point in running servers on a wireless network, because you need your servers to be in a physically secure, environmentally controlled data center, where there is ample wired bandwidth anyway. The more access points there are on your wireless network, the more hardwires there will need to be to support them, otherwise the few APs that are connected will become hotspots for traffic (and have to foot all the associated bills). The only people that would see a decline in business are the dial-up ISPs.
        • The only people that would see a decline in business are the dial-up ISPs.

          Big buisness in rural areas with no DSL and Cable, in towns though, DSL and cable will lose out too.

          Yes, the big backbones and server centers will still exist, however you're local cableco will have competition from DSL *and* wireless.
  • consume.net (Score:5, Informative)

    by david.given ( 6740 ) <dg@@@cowlark...com> on Thursday November 28, 2002 @07:08AM (#4774103) Homepage Journal
    ...do exactly this [consume.net].
  • by Koos Baster ( 625091 ) <ghostbusters AT xs4all DOT nl> on Thursday November 28, 2002 @07:15AM (#4774123)
    This is exactly what's happening [wirelessleiden.nl] in Leiden, the Netherlands. (English version here [wirelessleiden.nl])

    The idea is to make sure there's an open and free (as in beer) network of interconnected 802.11b WLAN hubs, before telcos or other commercial initiatives eat up the available bandwidth. Getting a stable network with good coverage is first priority. Getting BBS-like applications (or video distribution, or grid computing, or...) is second. Using it for last-mile internet access has a relatively low priority, but is not ruled out.

    The memory management on the PowerPC can be used to frighten small children -- Linus Torvalds

    Check it out!
  • Similar projects (Score:5, Informative)

    by majestynine ( 605494 ) on Thursday November 28, 2002 @07:44AM (#4774193)
    Have a look at Melbourne Wireless [wireless.org.au] which is a wireless initiative taking place where I live. I'm an active member and we are in the process of setting up the wireless 'mesh' of nodes. It's slow work but we're getting there.

    Also see Seattle wireless [seattlewireless.net] which is a project that aims to do the same sort of thing.

    You'll find that in a lot of places you won't legally be allowed to get internet access from nets sush as these because that would mean you become a internet provider, and there are legal ramifications of this. But as for sharing files and other applications, its quite useful.


  • If you try to take away their business, they will surely come up with something, like occupying the free network with worthless traffic.
  • by Anonymous Cowdog ( 154277 ) on Thursday November 28, 2002 @08:40AM (#4774362) Journal
    You're not the first one to think of this, but you are one of the few I've seen who have articulated it. Most people who talk about wireless networks don't make the leap to talking about a free wireless backbone. Here are a couple more comments about this:

    Re: next, forward packets [slashdot.org]

    Mesh Networks [slashdot.org]

    and this story which, like so many others about wireless networks, doesn't quite go far enough toward what you are suggesting:

    New Wireless Technologies [slashdot.org]

  • by adolf ( 21054 ) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Thursday November 28, 2002 @08:55AM (#4774407) Journal
    Only one thing is needed for this to succeed: People willing to spend money in a small geographic area in order to talk amongst themselves. It's not gonna be easy, though.

    Back in the day, it'd probably have been fairly easy to get people to drop a few hundred bucks on hardware in exchange for free local-area bandwidth.

    You'd need only post a message to a local BBS suggesting the idea, debate it for a week or two, round up a couple of capable people willing to help with installations. After that, proceed with the leeching.

    First, the sysops would connect to eachother, and by way of their ubiquitous, incessant bragging would encourage others to tie into the network.

    If 802.11/a/b had been available back then, at today's prices, such networks would have been plentiful. But it's much too late for that.

    The local scene is all-but-nonexistant these days. LUGs and 2600 notwithstanding, there's no way to communicate with a semi-clued cross section of the local populace anymore.

    This social problem combined with the fact that there is no percieved advantage to talking to a computer in the same town vs. one is Sydney, Australia makes the prospects of participation look awfully dim.

    So. Since there's no local forum by which to arrange such activities, and there's no compelling reason for people to join such a network instead of paying for DSL, good salesmanship is the only way to produce such a beast today.

    People will first think you're crazy when you tell them that you want them to buy a few hundred dollars with of cabling, Yagis, and gear, only to talk for free with a half-dozen strange geeks around town. And then they'll question your motives, wondering what your take in it is.

    It's a little early for the masses to get ready to participate in something of this scale and organization. In order for people to want to join such a network, a few things need to happen first:

    1) Transfer caps, and/or the return of metered dialup access. People, as a rule, are afraid of buying new things, especially when what they have appears to work justfine. It doesn't matter if this seems irrational or not. People who drive Fords generally continue to drive Fords until their Crown Vic explodes one morning on the way to church.

    2) Remember that killer app everyone was looking for during the dot.com boom? It remains elusive to this day. If it is ever discovered, and has sufficient local interest for people to justify dropping cash on hardware in order to participate, things might have a chance. And AFAICT, except in new markets, the broadband thing is getting pretty stale. The freenet needs a killer app.

    P2P is close, but the potential for such unrefined protocols to spill over from the freenet onto paid internet links makes for some hefty financial baggage for someone to tote. You could charge for internet access, but what would be the point? It's supposed to be free, remember?

    3) 802.11 gear needs to come down in price. With Wal-Mart selling new PCs for less than the cost of my first CD player, wireless gear must look quite expensive to Joe Average in comparison to their "free" cable modem.

    4) Additionally, we need more spectrum in a band capable of traversing more than a few miles of open terrain, without hanging antennas several hundred feet in the air. Swapping files and playing Unreal with Joe Across Town would be fun, but is rather limited in scope. People in Toledo ought to be able to be able to at least send email to folks in Detroit without unreasonable delay. There will be a handful of savvy volunteers willing to maintain short-haul inter-city links, but only if there's popular demand and a low-cost technical means of putting them together -- after all, any way to avoid paying Ma Bell for T1 circuits is a Good Thing in this context.

    5) I touched on this before, but we'll need better protocols, or at least good shims for existing ones. If such a network ever happens, it will be one where there are relatively vast amounts of relatively local bandwidth for free, with things slowing down considerably as distance inreases (along with increased costs that someone will have to cover).

    A diverse network of transparent squid proxies will help markedly with http, but what about ftp? Cursedly indiscriminate P2P? Even IRC can consume substantial bandwidth with a few thousand consumers. All of these things can be cached/proxied/otherwise-massaged, rate-limited, or simply operated on a strictly-local basis. But, someone along the way will have to write, implement, and enforce these policies at the border. The investment in time required for such needed, hatred-inspiring rulemaking will not be small. (Read: operating gateways is going to be expensive, time-consuming, and quite thankless.)

    6) And for the sanity-in-infrastructure requirements, it'll have to run IPV6 more-or-less exclusively -- nobody wants to be known as, and real IPV4 address space costs money. Besides, in a free network, there's no reason for every man, woman, child's palm pilot, bicycle, and toaster oven to not have unique addresses. Is the state of IPV6 under any incarnation of Windows sufficient to support this endeavor?

    That all said, you could count me in if I didn't live in a downstairs apartment with windows facing outside of town.

    Is the idea too early, or too late? You tell me. Personally, I don't see many of these problems being solved very soon in the current climate, but you be the judge.

    • Too Early (Score:2, Interesting)

      by wa4osh ( 624434 )
      1) Your point of resistance to change is well taken. But people do move from the familiar to something better for example from Black and White TV to Color, 8mm movies to video tape, film to digital pictures... I think the important thing is to solve a problem. For example, what is the reason to upgrade from analog TV to the new digital HDTVs? Does it solve a problem for me? My TV works just fine. People have the Internet thing solved at home for the most part - it gives them access to the internet at home so they can read e-mails and get on their chat groups. They have not really been given a good enough reason to upgrade. At home they will ask for access points so that they can use their laptops in the backyard. Except that their laptop does not work everywhere. Hotspots are the attempt to add locations where their laptop will work 2) Maybe you can argue that e-mail is the killer AP for the Internet. For 3G it seems to be ridiculous stuff like downloading ringtones and backgrounds see http://www.commsdesign.com/news/market_news/OEG200 21127S0042 (it too moves data) 802.11's current WLAN "killer AP" is in schools. The largest number of commercial grade access points is being sold to school districts, not to hotspots. 802.11 allows teachers to bring the computer to where the kids are learning rather than bringing the kids to the computer lab. It's lots less expensive than wiring each and every classroom for computers. But can 802.11 provide a WWAN "killer AP"? I think hotspots are a definite attempt here. 3) The price of 802.11 gear will come down even further since most all laptops will have 802.11b and 802.11a connections by next year. Intel is providing the chipsets. 4) Yes we need more spectrum, but the right kind of spectrum. We need a band that can traverse through trees and building walls and still have small antennas. Something in the 300 MHz-1000 Mhz band would be ideal. It so happens that Senators George Allen (R.-Va.) and Barbara Boxer (D.-Ca.) are circulating a draft bill to gain early support in the 108th Congress to promote a wireless approach to broadband deployment. An Allen spokesperson said the bill and accompanying "Dear Colleague" letter are efforts to "get beyond the stalemated debate of cable versus DSL." The draft legislation calls for the Federal Communications Commission to allocate not less than 255 megahertz of contiguous spectrum below 6 gigahertz for unlicensed use by wireless broadband devices. I think this would be a good opportunity to contact your repersentatives and back this bill. Ask for shared use of the UHF television band from 470MHz (ch14) to 698 MHz (ch51) under part 15. This is 228 Mhz of contiguous prime beachhead on this very underused band. This band penetrates building walls and trees much better than 2.4 or 5 GHz. And under low power restrictions (such as part 15 ERP limits), can still reach 30 miles. Why not share that spectrum under part 15 on those channels where no local UHF broadcasts exist? Properly designed equipment that is low power and that limits interference with UHF broadcasters should work well. This should help tremendously in cutting the cost of getting to the Tier1 Internet. Currently, the TELCOs are still maintaining their cash extraction monopoly by being the middle man to smaller Tier2 and Tier3 ISPs and commercial enterprises. 5) I think you will pretty much always need to have a connection to the Tier1 backbone and that will eventually cost someone somewhere. 6) I'm not sure having a real IP address is a requirement.
  • Locustworld [locustworld.com] is a great starting point. This project needs more press. From their site:

    Our mission is simple. We like this wireless technology, there is a huge potential in free community networks, as idealised by www.communitywireless.org We will research and make this technology available to everyone at the lowest cost we can. Wherever possible, this will be at the cost of parts. In other words, we're working totally for free here, even charity workers get paid! Where required, we will also help by providing live prototype networks and application development. Our primary interest is simply in providing the enabling technology to make this dream work. All the plans for building or modifying all our units will eventually be available as will the software itself. We hope to distribute this under an opensource license so that others can improve our work.

    Their goal is to provide free software to setup just the type of wireless community network you're looking for. Though their software package [locustworld.com] can be used with generic hardware, they're also selling a specialized embedded-esque box [locustworld.com] explictly for use with this project.

    In NYC, the NYCwireless [nycwireless.net] group has a "wireless cloud" SIG [nycwireless.net] which is (slowly?) trying to accomplish just this task.

    Good luck!
    • Taking a second look at my post, I should clarify that the NYCwireless Cloud SIG has nothing to do with the Locustworld MeshAP project, nor am I aware that they are using it. I was merely trying to point out that the SIG exists to promote a wireless backbone. I don't think it endorses any package.
  • The current crop of *wireles* is designed as access points.. not as a backbone.. Dont squeeze a sqare block in a round hole..

    Now if you start doing the pringles can thing to bridge various mini-nets.. ( or *real* microwave links ) Perhaps that might be something....

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp