It is Time to Consider Wireless Mesh Networking in Our Disaster Recovery Plans

Wireless Mesh Networking (WMN) has been around for quite a few years.  However, not until recently, when protesters in Cairo and Hong Kong used utilities such as Firechat to bypass the mobile phone systems and communicate directly with each other, did mesh networking become well known.

Wireless Mesh Networking WMN establishes an ad hoc communications network using the WiFi (802.11/15/16) radios on their mobile phones and laptops to connect with each other, and extend the connectable portion of the network to any device with WMN software.  Some devices may act as clients, some as mesh routers, and some as gateways.  Of course there are more technical issues to fully understand with mesh networks, however the bottom line is if you have an Android, iOS, or software enabled laptop you can join, extend, and participate in a WMN.

In locations highly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wildfire, access to communications can most certainly mean the difference between surviving and not surviving.  However, during disasters, communications networks are likely to fail.

The same concept used to allow protesters in Cairo and Hong Kong to communicate outside of the mobile and fixed telephone networks could, and possibly should, have a role to play in responding to disasters.

An interesting use of this type of network was highlighted in a recent novel by Matthew Mather, entitled “Cyberstorm.”  Following a “Cyber” attack on the US Internet and connected infrastructures, much of the fixed communications infrastructure was rendered inoperable, and utilities depending on networks also fell under the impact.  An ad hoc WMN was built by some enterprising technicians, using the wireless radios available within most smart phones.  This allowed primarily messaging, however did allow citizens to communicate with each other – and the police, by interconnecting their smart phones into the mesh.

We have already embraced mobile phones, with SMS instant messaging, into many of our country’s emergency notification systems.  In California we can receive instant notifications from emergency services via SMS and Twitter, in addition to reverse 911.  This actually works very well, up to the point of a disaster.

WMN may provide a model for ensuring communications following a disaster.  As nearly every American now has a mobile phone, with a WiFi radio, the basic requirements for a mesh network are already in our hands.  The main barrier, today, with WMN is the distance limitations between participating access devices.  With luck WiFi antennas will continue to increase in power, reducing distance barriers, as each new generation is developed.

There are quite a few WMN clients available for smart phones, tablets, and WiFi-enabled devices today.  While many of these are used as instant messaging and social platforms today, just as with other social communications applications such as Twitter, the underlying technology can be used for many different uses, including of course disaster communications.

Again, the main limitation on using WMNs in disaster planning today is the limited number of participating nodes (devices with a WiFi radio), distance limitations with existing wireless radios and protocols, and the fact very few people are even aware of the concept of WMNs and potential deployments or uses.  The more participants in a WMN, the more robust is becomes, the better performance the WMN will support, and the better chance your voice will be heard during a disaster.

Here are a couple WMN Disaster Support ideas I’d like to either develop, or see others develop:

  • Much like the existing 911 network, a WMN standard could and should be developed for all mobile phone devices, tablets, and laptops with a wireless radio
  • Each mobile device should include an “App” for disaster communications
  • Cities should attempt to install WMN compatible routers and access points, particularly in areas at high risk for natural disasters, which could be expected to survive the disaster
  • Citizens in disaster-prone areas should be encouraged to add a solar charging device to their earthquake, wildfire, and  other disaster-readiness kits to allow battery charging following an anticipated utility power loss
  • Survivable mesh-to-Internet gateways should be the responsibility of city government, while allowing citizen or volunteer gateways (including ham radio) to facilitate communications out of the disaster area
  • Emergency applications should include the ability to easily submit disaster status reports, including photos and video, to either local, state, or FEMA Incident Management Centers

That is a start.

Take a look at Wireless Mesh Networks.  Wikipedia has a great high-level explanation, and  Google search yields hundreds of entries.  WMNs are nothing new, but as with the early days of the Internet, are not getting a lot of attention.  However maybe at sometime in the future a WMN could save your life.

IT Expo West – Wireless Broadband Delivery Heroes

Gregg Nobel loves wireless Internet. He talks about technologies such as MIMO (Multiple-In, Multiple Out) that will help him deliver high speed, broadband Internet services through the northeast with refreshing enthusiasm. Gregg shows feverish dedication to ensuring fellow residents and children of the state have an equal chance to compete with the Koreans, Scandinavians, and Virginians who may currently hold an advantage due to ubiquitous access to high speed broadband Internet.

Is it WiMax that will hold the answer? LTE? 802.11n?

Not important. The important thing is to lay the pipe needed to accomplish his objective of leaving no Massachusettsan, Vermonter, Connecticuter, or New Hampshirite behind in the race for achieving the American dream.

Gregg is the Business Development Manager for GAW (Great Auk Wireless) High-Speed Internet, a wireless infrastructure provider based in Vermont. They not only aggressively deliver high-speed broadband to towns offering a good opportunity for revenues, they also work with local communities and municipalities to bring easy access to high speed Internet to rural communities and areas not easily served by cable or telephone utilities.

US Internet Wireless in Minneapolis has a similar approach. Working with the city, USI Wireless is deploying high speed Internet services from a central location atop the IDS Tower in downtown Minneapolis. As USI Wireless has good line of sight from the tower, it deployed 55x 80 Megabits per second “DragonWave” antenna systems in an omni-directional pattern. Network traffic is backhauled to the 511 Building in downtown Minneapolis, which is a small carrier hotel with around 30 networks present for interconnection.

The city of Minneapolis supports USI Wireless with an arrangement allowing them to access city-owned conduits and access points throughout the city to allow further expansion of their wireless infrastructure. Additional wireless access point

Discussions with the USI Wireless representative at IT Expo West in Los Angeles this week revealed some additional interesting points. While we might believe that wireless access is most attractive to yuppies and higher income demographics, the reality is most of their subscribers are inner-city and under-privileged children from the urban centers in north Minneapolis.

This demographic was reinforced by Rudy Garza, a education and community services advocate from South Gate (an urban center in S.E. Los Angeles). Mr. Garza agreed that having wireless broadband access within an under privileged community can only help give kids one more tool that may push them over the fence post on the side of a more productive life than otherwise probable without Internet access.

MIMO-AntennaHow it is done

There are several competing standards for wireless network access. The most common, 802.11n (WiFi), is most well known as being the type wireless access point most people are now putting into their homes and offices. 802.11n wireless access points incorporate internal MOSI (Multiple out, Single In) antennas, allowing the wireless device to transmit several different wireless signals, and the end user devices will be able to choose the most optimal signal from those transmitted from the access point.

802.11n does support MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) signaling, however today most end user devices are not set up with multiple antennas. Today 802.11n access points can easily transmit at bandwidths up to 70Mbps up to around 300ft. From that point the signal begins to degrade, and access speeds will drop.

With full MIMO deployment 802.11n will support single capacity streams of up to 600Mbps per access device.

In a city deployment using 802.11n you can easily expect to support around 150 users with reasonable internet access speeds, although not at bandwidth adequate to handle applications like television and high speed video. The answer is with correct city funding, or subscriber fees, more antennas and access point can be deployed to increase the amount of bandwidth available for each end device, as well as extend coverage to more locations. However the bottom line with 802.11n is you still have some level of limitation on distance and the number of supportable subscribers.

WiMAX

WiMAX is an alternative to WiFi, although in general much more expensive. Many networks are considering deployment of WiMAX, which also can take advantage of MIMO. The most well known networks in the US using WiMAX are those deployed by Sprint and Clearwire (now merged). Both have extensive networks, and in the case of Sprint the deployment is supported through use of their existing cellular towers, and high capacity fiber optic lines for backhaul of wireless internet traffic to Sprint’s central offices.

LTEa and 4G

Other than Sprint, in the US most carriers are considering a phased deployment of LTEa (Long Term Evolution – advanced) and 4G (4th Generation Wireless) throughout their existing cellular networks. Most of these companies are currently using the cellular EV-DO (Evolution – Data Optimized), which will be supplemented and then replaced by more powerful LTEa and 4G wireless systems.

LTEa will allow for 100Mbps in individual devices which are moving or mobile, and up to 1Gbps for stationary devices. When the LTEa/4G networks are fully deployed, nearly any device which can access a wireless network may be able to use the new wireless standard. LTEa/4G can take full advantage of MIMO, and further allow end user devices to aggregate bandwidth being transmitted from multiple antennas, and antenna sources. Devices will also become available with multiple antennas embedded in the device, such as telephone handsets built with multiple antennas within the handset.

Perhaps the most exicting thing about further development of MIMO, LTEa/4G, more powerful WiFi, and even WiMAX, is that the bandwidth and access speeds will soon be high enough to support everything from HD-TV to high performance Internet access, regardless if in a city or rural environment.

In the Meantime…

It will take until 2015 for companies such as Verizon to fully deploy their next generation wireless networks. In the meantime we will still look to companies like GAW and USI Wireless to continue bringing broadband Internet access to both the countryside, as well as inner-city areas. We need to support their efforts, and efforts of those like GAW and USI Wireless who are working to deliver network access in the towns of Iowa, New Mexico, the south side of Chicago, or any other place our fellow citizens need network access.

John Savageau, Long Beach

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