Everyone is familiar with wireless or Wi-Fi networks. We use them at home, at work or at the local coffee shop to surf the internet, access web services, generate emails, manage data, and conduct VoIP-based voice and video calls and so on. Wi-Fi even allows us to use our mobile phones to make calls and save our precious cellular minutes. What can further improve this experience? The answer lies in the next evolution of Wi-Fi, which is referred to as “mesh networking.”
Although mesh networking technology and related hardware products have been around in some form since 2006, its early use was specifically for military applications. That has changed, however, as it is becoming a more prevalent technology for consumer and business applications. Manufacturers of traditional Wi-Fi equipment are now actively developing mesh-enabled Wi-Fi systems and start-ups are also entering this arena, as both see the significant growth potential with this market. The focus of this article is on wireless mesh networks.
Mesh networking is a data communications networking system that consists of numerous nodes that act as access points. Each node in the system communicates with nodes adjacent to it. These interconnections allow the mesh network to be highly resilient and self- healing. So, for example, if one of the nodes or communication routes fails, the network’s software protocol automatically reroutes the data so that it arrives at the destination. Mesh networks can be set up as hardwired or wireless.
In hardwired networks, all of the nodes are physically connected to one another by Ethernet cables so the cost of such a system is relatively high and therefore not optimal. An example of a hardwired mesh network is the traditional router network used in internet-based communications.
However, if we take the same model but now make it wireless, we end up with a resilient network that is easier to set up, manage and maintain, and which is inexpensive to implement and operate.
Nodes are an essential component of a wireless mesh network. They include access points that not only receive and transmit a data signal, but that intelligently route the data signal to an adjacent wireless node. A wireless mesh network consists of an arrangement of these nodes with generally only one or several nodes in the wireless network being hardwired- connected to the internet or hardwired network access point. You can almost think of the mesh nodes as mini cell towers, but operating on an unlicensed spectrum. A user would connect to the wireless mesh network using a device such as a Wi-Fi enabled PC or laptop, cell phone, tablet or other wireless device.
The principal difference between a wireless mesh network and a traditional Wi-Fi network is that a wireless mesh network requires specialized software and hardware that conforms to IEEE standards so its access points/nodes are able to intelligently route the data packets to adjacent nodes. In a traditional Wi-Fi network, intelligent routing between nodes is not the norm. Data from the user’s device would be received by the closest access point or node. With intelligent routing protocols, the node would determine where the data needs to be transmitted in order to reach its destination. The data packet would hop along the various nodes until it arrives at its destination. The destination could be another user on the network, another network or internet access.
The speed and capacity of wireless networks continues to increase due to improvements in the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 standards on wireless connectivity. 802.11 is a set of IEEE standards on Wi-Fi communications that are appended with a letter to designate a newer standard. Prior versions include 802.11 "b", "a", "g", and “n” and the most recent "ac." Each new version or variant is an improvement from the prior with increased data throughput, speed, different frequency ranges and better use of spectrum. They are also backward compatible. Version “n” introduced MIMO or Multiple In, Multiple Out.
MIMO is the use of multiple receiving and transmitting antennas on the Wi-Fi access point; an access point could have two to four transmitters and one to four receivers. The use of multiple antennas allows the access point to reduce interference and clearly receive and transmit the Wi-Fi signals. This increases the data throughput and range without needing additional bandwidth and transmitted power.1
The newest member of the 802.11 standard is 802.11 ac, which was introduced in 2013 as a draft, with the final version expected in 2015.2 Although the standard remains in draft, OEMs have been producing compatible products for market. A 2011 study indicated growth in the “ac” market from zero units in 2011 to over 1 billion by 2015.3 “ac” is designed to operate faster and has a greater bandwidth than “n,” but like “n,” it also incorporates MIMO. The faster speed, greater bandwidth and MIMO capability of “ac” based products results in mesh networks that can handle more users and greater traffic/data loads (i.e., video downloads and uploads).
Although mesh capability has been present to varying degrees in prior variants of the 802.11 standard, the “n” and “ac” standards, with their ability to handle MIMO, faster speed and greater bandwidth, will be driving the adoption of mesh-based wireless networks.
A mesh network has several key features:
Nodes are typically installed outdoors and can be mounted low on fixed objects such as a telephone pole, the roof of a building or even on a portable stand if a temporary mesh network needs to be installed. Outdoor nodes are encased in a weatherproof enclosure and require simple power supply such as traditional AC plugs, batteries or possibly a solar panel. The network connection can be spread among dozens or even hundreds of wireless mesh nodes that communicate with each other to share the network’s limited hardwired connections.
As noted, within a mesh network nodes use adjacent nodes to pass a data signal. Adding a node next to the most remote node in the network increases the geographical size of the network, which broadens its range and results in a better user experience. The limitation on a network’s geographic span is dependent on the nodes’ bandwidth capacity, signal strength based on their spacing, and the backend controller that manages this data traffic.
A visual representation of internal and external nodes and how they form a mesh network is noted below: 4
In a traditional wired or fixed wireless network, all of the access points need to be hardwired to have access to the internet or another network. Hardwiring may consist of Ethernet cables that have been installed in the ceilings and walls of a building. With a wireless mesh network, only one node would need to be physically wired to a network connection like a DSL internet modem. The one wired node would then share its internet connection wirelessly with all the other mesh nodes in the vicinity. This could allow a wireless mesh network to serve an office building, an entire college campus, large cities and even temporary venues such as a large construction project or a multiday concert where the mesh nodes could be installed, moved around as needed and removed when the event is completed. Other advantages include:
Wi-Fi mesh networks can be found in a variety of areas such as:
In Scottsdale, Arizona7 a wireless mesh network was deployed in 2013 as part of the city’s “intelligent transportation system” (ITS) to deal with local traffic problems. The ITS communications platform connects wirelessly to 86 pan-tilt-zoom cameras, traffic signal controllers and dynamic message signs on arterials throughout the city so traffic can be monitored from a central command center. The cameras are strategically placed on traffic signal poles at intersections throughout Scottsdale and connected to the city’s network via Firetide wireless mesh nodes. The network can support up to 15 consecutive links or “hops” so it can easily be routed around buildings and trees rather than requiring giant 300 foot towers to operate above these obstacles. On a real-time basis, the city can monitor cameras to identify congestion, control traffic lights and send out emergency personnel or traffic wardens to clear bottlenecks that may occur when there is an accident or a special event.
The benefits of the ITS are:
As technology continues to evolve and improve, Wi-Fi mesh applications will increase and become more mainstream. A few examples include:
Consumers, businesses and government agencies continue to demand faster, more reliable communications networks and at a lower cost. Wireless mesh networking is the ideal technology to make this possible. The ability to use unlicensed spectrum and readily set up large scale, mobile Wi-Fi networks, to use Wi-Fi as an internet backhaul in developing countries and rural areas, and to build network systems that improve personal safety are just a few of the beneficial applications of a wireless mesh network. Further improvements that increase the speed, capacity and range of a wireless mesh network could truly result in global connectivity that would allow readily connecting with anyone in the world at anytime from anywhere.
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1 Wikipedia – MIMO: Online. Internet, Accessed 9/20/2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIMO
2 Phiper, Lisa; “Get Ready for Gigabit Wi-Fi.” Information Week (11/28/2012): Online. Internet. Accessed 9/20/2013, http://www.networkcomputing.com/government/get-ready-gigabit-wi-fi/1503966815
3 Burt, Jeffrey; “1 Billion 802.11ac WiFi Devices to Ship in 2013.” eweek.com (2/8/2011): Online. Internet. Accessed 9/20/2013, http://www.eweek.com/c/a/Mobile-and-Wireless/1-Billion-80211ac-WiFi-Devices-to-Ship-in-2015-InStat-776091
5 How Stuff Works – Wireless Mesh Networking: Online. Internet, Accessed 9/20/2013, http://computer.howstuffworks.com/how-wireless-mesh-networks-work1.htm
6 “Evolution of Municipal Wireless Networks.” Cisco: Online. Internet. Accessed 9/20/2013, http://www.cisco.com/en/US/prod/collateral/wireless/ps5679/ps6548/prod_white_paper0900aecd8057255d_ns621_Networking_Solutions_White_Paper.html
7 “Scottsdale, Arizona sets up wireless mesh network to relieve traffic congestion.” Muniwireless.com (July 2, 2013): Online. Internet. Accessed 9//20/2013, http://www.muniwireless.com/2013/07/02/scottsdale-wireless-mesh-network/
8 “Self-Organizing Wireless Mesh Networks.” Microsoft Research: Online. Internet. Accessed 9/20/2013, http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/mesh/
9 Fitchard, Kevin. “Ford investigates creating a mobile data network using the cars themselves.” (August 10, 2011): Online. Internet. Accessed 9/20/2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jimgorzelany/2011/08/12/ford-looks-to-wi-fi-to-ease-traffic-congestion-and-make-roads-safer/#54fe87b13c38