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NSF Backs Open Source Wireless Mesh Project

Earthlink and Tropos might be looking to make millions off of muni wireless, but members of the open source community are hard at work trying to make wireless networking free. And they just got some funds to help their cause. Sascha Meinrath, of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, CUWIN, just called me this morning to say his open source wireless mesh project received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Sascha says he plans to use the money to add staff, scour the globe for open source partners, and boost research and testing.

The organization had been applying to the NSF for 4 years now, and previously Sascha had been paying much of the research fees out of pocket–so the news is good for him on a lot of levels! A project like this could help make wireless broadband available for communities that can’t afford it and address the real digital divide. Not just recreate the economics of the traditional phone and cable operators with a slightly less monthly subscriber fee.

I thought maybe the NSF was starting to pay attention to an open source wireless project because of what wireless networking was shown to do in recovery efforts in Hurricane Katrina and the East Asian tsunami. Sascha said he wasn’t sure why the NSF approved them this time.

The open source code addresses the networking layer that improves the strength and reduces redundancies of the wireless signal. The code is in beta form and freely available on the organization’s web site. Making this technology freely available to anyone might make some companies with nice profits from wireless mesh, a tad unhappy. But the companies that are confident in their own technology probably won’t mind.

Sascha said he has also been talking to a few companies for partnerships. For example, he says possible partnerships could be wireless hand held device makers looking to test products over a test mesh network, that don’t want to pay a lot to use an already established network owned by a for-profit company.

Allan Leinwand, a partner at Panorama Capital, is an open source networking advocate and funded Vyatta the open source router company. He says a funding like this is really exciting for the open source network community, but that it’s also a big leap to turn a project into a widely used product.

The CUWIN project is really small, so whether the code will become popular is unclear. Sascha said his group started as “a bunch of geeks in my living room and grew to an international community.” Maybe these funds could help the technology follow suit.

8 Responses to “NSF Backs Open Source Wireless Mesh Project”

  1. Sascha,

    Have you made progress since this thread started? I was reading elsewhere about an open hardware movement, with one project being design of an open source router by a peer-to-peer network led by a group in Germany, about a year ago. Now there is the router in the OLPC XO, which is all open source. This needs to be available to build primary communication networks in the developing world, to drive distribution of knowledge of sustainability, and support economic activity at the grass roots. Ideally, the Intel bridge router will also be available for long links (to 60 km or miles) between concentrations of rural people and villages. The structural system for the towers was invented in the 1960s — it is the Captive Column, U.S. Patent 3,501,880, , and you can make towers out of bamboo and silk or wire or vines if you have to — or kevlar and carbon, or fiberglass and balsa wood (like the tractor test beam in the website photo). It’s all in the intelligent use of geometry.

    There is a nascent movement to create a new curriculum for the XO and any other computer that can run Sugar; I’m helping get it started.

    Do you have any interest in this, and / or any thoughts of guidance?



  2. Scott — you’ve hit the nail on the head. One of the differentiators between CUWiN and other mesh wireless technologies is that we’re developing a true ad-hoc peer-to-peer mesh. So if it’s just you and a dozen friends on a desert island, if you’re using CUWiN, you can set up an island-wide LAN and directly connect to one-another.

    And if you have a community-wide LAN, then yes, if the traffic is local, there’s no need to use Internet connectivity at all. One of the “killer apps” for this is, of course, VoIP — basically, if everyone is covered by the community LAN, then there’s no need to pay for local phone service at all, and the calls would be routed directly to each local participant, so no need to utilize that external bandwidth at all.

    Jesse lays out the next logical step — tying together these community LANs to form a national infrastructure. Sound far-fetched? I’ve been working with several groups to do exactly this — we’re hoping to go public with the effort within the next few months, so stay tuned.

  3. Jesse Kopelman

    Scott, if we all set up routers that could talk to each other we would have recreated the Internet — because that is what the Internet is. The question is, who provides the connections to cover the long stretchs of unpopulated area that are way beyond the range of unlicensed wireless? For example, how does Las Vegas talk to Los Angeles? Right now, the only way to do so is to ride on a privately owned network that will charge you for the privilege. If there was a publically funded longhaul backbone to tie into (something like the public road system), your idea would be a go. Still if you live in a big enough city, you might be able to create your own local network using the WiFi routers that you don’t care if you can talk to the rest of the world . . .

  4. Scott AZ

    If we all set up wireless routers that could talk to one another could we get a faster network without having to go to the web. I might be way off but when I transfer one file from one computer to another on my network it is much faster than when I download the same size file over the net. Could some one tell me how off I am or if I may be on to something. Thanks for reading and replying