ITC services: Wireless Mesh Networks

Diagram of a mesh network

If you are planning to set up wireless networks at one of your venues, then a Wireless Mesh network is a simple, reliable and cost-effective solution. This technology delivers self-configuring, scalable, and self-healing networks. It is the ultimate 'hotspot' solution!

As reported in a March 2004 ZDNet article: "Tech industry heavyweights such as Cisco and Intel believe mesh techniques are the logical next step for wireless networks".

What is a Wireless Mesh network?

Traditional wireless formats suffer from rigid structure, meticulous planning requirements, and dropped signals. In contrast, wireless mesh networks are 'multihop' systems in which devices assist each other in transmitting packets through the network, especially in adverse conditions. You can drop these ad hoc networks into place with minimal preparation, and they provide a reliable, flexible system that can be extended to thousands of devices.

Photo of a Meshbox A Mesh Access Point.

The Mesh network is created using a series of special 802.11b Access Points (MeshAPs) that create a single, scalable wireless network. The gateway MeshAP (that is, the MeshAP that is connected to the internet) can obtain its internet access from WiFi, local broadband, dial-up modem, ISDN or even a self contained GSM/GPRS module for really unconnected locations.

If you want to increase the size/range of your network, you just add another MeshAP. And because it's built around standard 802.11b (WiFi) hardware, all you need to access the network is a standard WiFi network card.

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Mesh networks

A MeshAP can send and receive messages and also functions as a router that can relay messages for its neighbors. Through the relaying process, data will find its way to its destination, passing through intermediate MeshAPs. Like the Internet and other peer-to-peer router-based networks, a mesh network offers multiple redundant communications paths throughout the network. If one link fails for any reason, the network automatically routes messages through alternate paths.

In a mesh network, you can shorten the distance between nodes, which dramatically increases the link quality. If you reduce the distance by a factor of two, the resulting signal is at least four times more powerful at the receiver. This makes links more reliable without increasing transmitter power in individual nodes. In a mesh network, you can extend the reach, add redundancy and improve the general reliability of the network simply by adding more MeshAPs.

A Self-Configuring and Self-Healing Network

A mesh network is self-organising and doesn't require manual configuration. Because of this, adding new MeshAPs or relocating existing MeshAPs is as simple as plugging it in and turning it on. The network discovers the new node and automatically incorporates it into the existing system.

On the Internet, if one router goes down, messages are sent through an alternate path by other routers. Similarly, if a device or its link in a mesh network fails, messages are sent around it via other devices. Loss of one or more nodes doesn't necessarily affect the network's operation. A mesh network is self-healing because human intervention is not necessary for re-routing of messages.

Redundancy and Scalability

A network can be deliberately over-designed for reliability simply by adding extra nodes, so each device has two or more paths for sending data. This is a simpler way of obtaining redundancy than is possible in most other types of systems.

A mesh network is also scalable and can handle hundreds or thousands of nodes. Because the network's operation doesn't depend on a central control point, adding multiple data collection points or gateways is convenient.

Point-to-point networks can provide reliability, but they don't scale to handle more than one pair of end points. Point-to-multipoint networks can handle more end points, but their reliability is determined by the placement of the access point and end points.

If environmental conditions result in poor reliability, it's difficult or impossible to adapt a point-to-multipoint network to increase reliability. By contrast, mesh networks are inherently reliable, adapt easily to environmental or architectural constraints, and can scale to handle thousands of end points.

How do I control access?

If required, users of the Mesh network can be assigned to a pool that requires authentication though a captive web portal that runs on the MeshAP. You can configure how long a user can access the network for along with bandwidth restrictions. Once a user is logged in, all regular Internet services are supported. These settings can be changed to suit your needs.

With authentication, you can even charge users to access the Mesh network, and because it's not built around proprietry software, access to the Mesh is available for any wireless enabled device (PDA, Laptop, Bluetooth phone*) using any operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, PalmOS, Symbian etc...)

* bluetooth access requires a bluetooth enabled MeshAP

What else can a MeshAP do?

Simply add a mouse, keyboard and monitor to a MeshAP and you have a public access terminal that allows users to surf the web, check email etc using the built in Mozilla web browser.

You can also connect to the MeshAP via Secure Shell (SSH) for remote administration.

What about Bluetooth?

The latest incarnation of the MeshAP supports both WiFi and Bluetooth, providing mesh extendable wireless internet access for many different devices and now comes with MMS integration for Bluetooth enabled mobile phones.

How much does it cost?

Here are two costing examples:

  1. For a single MeshAP installation in a small venue (such as a coffee shop) our prices start from as little as £1,130 + VAT.
  2. For a medium sized office building with four floors, our price for installing a state-of-the-art Bluetooth-enabled MeshAp on each floor would be £3,420 + VAT.

For both of these examples, existing broadband network connections are assumed, but there are no additional costs unless you choose to take advantage of our technical support service.

If you know your networking requirements, or you just want to discuss the available options, then contact us for more details.

Details on how to manage wireless mesh networks are also available on this site.

"Urban wireless networks, bluetooth integration, corporate intranet and specialised communications projects are all areas where the wireless mesh can be used to provide connectivity. With certificated encryption, bandwidth management, access controls, accounting and remote management, [the mesh] is an ideal solution for wide ranging wireless communications."

Richard Lander from LocustWorld speaking at the @Wales Technology Showcase

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