Do We Need a Mesh Standard?

By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2003-12-15 Print this article Print

European wireless editor Guy Kewney sees ominous clouds coming from Intel and Cisco. Do we really need an expensive mesh standard, or could LocustWorld fill the bill?

So tell me, Intel: when is a de facto standard - say the x86 instruction set - a good thing? and when should it be opposed as a threat to industry unity? And Cisco: should we adopt the de facto LEAP security standard (developed by Cisco, naturally) and the CCX extensions that go with it? Or should the industry go with the IEEEs existing security standards for wireless, 802.1X?
The answer seems to be: "It depends on whether were winning, or losing."
Take the self-configuring network technology called Mesh. There are several types of Mesh around. Each links a group of wireless nodes in what used to be called a "parasitic network" and each has its advantages, and trade-offs. In the real world, such network topologies are already routinely used to provide neighbourhood broadband to rural communities. And some have suggested that a co-operative mesh may be the answer to possible future electro-magnetic frequency clutter. To take just one example, the LocustWorld Mesh design has recently been rolled out in Gun Barrel City in Texas, in Louisiana, as well as in Malaysia, the West Indies, and around Europe. Into this industry, come the giants: Intel and Cisco, with the discovery that these different meshes are all incompatible. Topologically? No, thats not the problem. "The two Silicon Valley-based companies said this week that they will introduce an industry standard for wireless mesh networking during an inaugural study group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) meeting in Vancouver, Canada next month," reported Wi-Fi Planet. The argument - although you couldnt get an executive or engineer at either Cisco or Intel to admit it - is that "if you put all the mesh network boxes in a room and turn them on, they do not talk to each other." It sounds truly dreadful. And we, the poor hapless users, will be the victims of this anarchy - or so were supposed to believe. The kindly Big Brothers, Intel and Cisco, will restore order and harmony to the world, and well all breathe a sigh of relief and go out for coffee. Since neither kindly giant has put its name to a proposal, its hard to know what they are thinking. But if the problem is the one described in the report, then either they are not thinking, or they are thinking of doing something rather different from offering a helping hand to a confused world. To quote the report again: "Some [meshes] use cellular, some use 802.11a. Cellular is good for mounting on telephone poles for longer reach. 802.11a is good for shorter distances and is great because it wont interfere with 802.11b or 802.11g networks." Whoa back, charger! are we talking about different mesh standards? Or are we worrying about the colour of the copper wire used to power them? Because no amount of standardization, no matter how it is arranged, is ever going to make a mesh network that allows 1,900 MHz cellular wireless to talk to 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi. What matters, surely, is the topology, not the frequency of the wireless! And there are several types of Mesh topology, from dynamic routing as opposed to link-state routing, and they are very much optimized for different purposes. For example, you might conceivably design a single super-computer, which consists of an array (another word for Mesh) of processors all linked together with miles of cable; and conceivably, you might make it into a powerful parallel processor. But theres no earthly way you could conceive of applying that standard to the problems of setting up a co-operative Wi-Fi network in a block of downtown Palo Alto. Next page: Whats really going on here.


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