U.K. Plans Roadside Wireless Network

The U.K. government is planning to upgrade its roadside telematics system with a wireless network designed to blanket the country with low-cost wireless Internet access.

LONDON—The U.K. government is planning to upgrade its roadside telematics system with a wireless network designed to blanket the country with low-cost wireless Internet access.

At this weeks Wireless LAN Event here, a small Exeter-based company called Last Mile Communications (a trading name of five-year-old TIVIS Ltd.) launched the patented technology the government is eyeing for its massive roadside infrastructure upgrade. Under Last Miles scheme, contractors would install about 150,000 inexpensive wireless broadband transceivers in such equipment as street lights and traffic lights, which will run off available power or even solar energy.

These units will self-configure into a network capable of passing signals from one node to another until it reaches an Internet uplink, a technique known as multi-hop or mesh networking. Anyone within about 250 meters (about 820 feet) of a node will be able to access a wireless connection of 40M bps to 400M bps, although the connection will probably initially be made using standards such as Wi-Fi or WiMax, which are considerably slower. A typical consumer broadband connection runs at about half a megabit per second.

The network is designed to connect to the broader Internet via any sort of uplink, including a standard T1 line or satellite broadband connection, the company said.

If Last Miles scheme is successful, it would make wireless dramatically more prevalent than it is now, with Wi-Fi hot spots currently limited to places such as airports, coffee shops and convention centers. It could also be a solution to the problems carriers have faced in bringing high-speed Internet access to remote areas that arent serviced by cable broadband or DSL.

"Others in the industry are trying to find a way of making the fragmented (Wi-Fi) market pay for itself," said Last Mile CEO Antony Abell. "We have hit upon a model to make it happen."

Last Mile says it has spent the past few years quietly filing global patents on the use of wireless mesh networks in roadside communications systems; its original focus was on in-car telematics. Then, when the Highways Agency launched its public-private partnership upgrade project, called the National Roads Telecommunications Services Project, it found that the system it had in mind required the use of Last Miles patents. The result is that Last Miles technology is being used by two different consortiums competing for the National Roads contract.

The company is beginning trials in Exeter this year, with first deployments expected in 2005.

The system uses microcells, which broadcast at far lower power and have less range than mobile phone masts, but use the 63 GHz radio frequency rather than the 1.9 GHz of U.S. GSM phones, which means far higher data rates. The system will provide the Highways Agency with new services, such as the ability to monitor vehicles and provide drivers with detailed information about road conditions via in-car telematics.

But this will only use a fraction of the systems bandwidth, leaving contractors to sell on the rest to businesses and consumers via partnerships with ISPs or telcos. Coverage will be focused on major highways and urban centers, Abell said.

The sudden success of Wi-Fi has given new life to projects aimed at extending the availability of wireless data networks. Some companies are experimenting with modifications to Wi-Fi that allow hot spots to form larger meshes serviced by a single backhaul. Other startups, such as MeshNetworks, are using more sophisticated proprietary mesh systems to a similar effect.

WiMax is a promising solution that has industry support from the likes of Intel, Siemens and Alcatel; it is a wide-range technology aiming to create cheap wireless broadband thats available anywhere, not just in the vicinity of a hot spot. Backers see it as an alternative to wired services such as ADSL or cable, and a later upgrade will add mobility. The first WiMax equipment is due for ratification next year.

Last Miles Abell said the companys transceiver posts would support standards such as WiMax and Wi-Fi for the connection between the node and the user.

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