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The News – 03/22/02

In this Issue:

Recommended Reading

I realize this is the only newsletter you’ll ever need, but if you want more in-depth detail, check out:

Stan Hustad’s The Coaching Connection

Wireless Mesh Networks: Islands Make the Net

Wireless local networks are sprouting across the US at an ever-accelerating rate. For example, Starbucks is rolling out one of the largest wireless network initiatives ever, planning on providing high-speed Internet access in all 4,000 of its North American shops (see a previous SNS).

MobileStar Network provides each Starbucks store with wireless LAN connectivity using 802.11b (AKA WiFi) technology as well as a T-1 Internet connection for each shop. Access at Starbucks isn’t free, however. Users can pay as they go ($2.95 for the first 15 minutes, 20 cents a minute thereafter) or signup for a MobileStar plan, including 120 minutes for $9.95 a month or their  Local Galaxy Plan, which includes unlimited access within select local metro areas for $29.95 a month. MobileStar's other customers include American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Columbia Sussex Hotels. The company’s T-Mobile Wireless Broadband service is now available in more than 650 public access locations nationwide, 528 of them Starbucks shops.

Of course, Starbucks is not the only one who’s setting up wireless LANs. For example, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport just unveiled 802.11b access for several of its concourses. It’s free until April 30, and after that it costs $7.95 a day for unlimited access. That’s a bit pricier than a Starbucks monthly plan, but, hey, it’s a captive audience. I’ve paid ten bucks a day for wired access in a hotel room and been grateful.

There’s a fly in the ointment for these  commercial wireless networks, however: a significant grassroots effort to put up free, publicly accessible wireless access points. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, with networks up all over North America, Europe, and Australia. One of the oldest projects is SeattleWireless. Its organizers describe their vision this way: “Wouldn't it be interesting to walk down the street with your laptop or PDA and be able to access your home machine? Or the business that you're walking by? Or even the Internet? . . . We want to create a wireless network infrastructure that is easy to set up for the end user, has no recurring monthly fees, and is owned and operated by its users (that's you!), not a corporation.”

Setting up freely accessible wireless networks is becoming so popular that in some areas, these 802.11b networks are so close their coverage overlaps, despite the fact the networks’ range is typically only 200 feet.

This overlap phenomenon creates the possibility of routing traffic directly from one WiFi network to another, bypassing the Internet altogether. This is called mesh routing, and as a free grassroots movement, it could take some of the steam out of not only Starbucks-like pay-for-play WiFi networks, but also the expensive 3G wireless networks pushed by the big cell phone networks. Why pay for milk when the cow is free? Nicholas Negroponte, director of the M.I.T Media Laboratory, said, “The social contract is simple: you can use mine when you are in the vicinity of Mount Vernon Street, Boston. But I want to be able to use yours when I am near you.”

Proponents envision a network that will “self assemble” — speading like wildfire from neighborhood to neighborhood as people buy WiFi equipment and either attach to the wired Internet or pass a signal on to another wireless node. And, as if we need another acronym, mesh network proponent Tim Pozar, a member of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, has coined the term NAN, for Neighborhood Area Network, to describe the phenomenon.

There is precedent for this type of non-commercial, anarchic network: FidoNet. Back in 1984, before there was a commercially available Internet, modem owners banded together to support file transfers and communications via E-Mail and Usenet News across the US and, eventually, the world. Most of the early nodes were Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) that serviced local groups of enthusiasts. FidoNet nodes agreed to swap email, files, and Usenet articles on a regular basis, for free.

The FidoNet network is still operating, and today consists of approximately 30,000 systems worldwide. This is an important point: like a cockroach, this inelegant, massively redundant, inefficient network has survived. Despite the availability and massiveness of the World Wide Web, FidoNet node operators still cling to this slower, less-efficient network, probably in large part because it is free, and not influenced by corporations or other large entities such as governments. This supposedly obsolete technology has thrived and provides significant functionality, for free, completely outside of commercial networks in much the same way as ham radio has survived commercial radio and long distance telephone service.

I see NANs, or mesh networks, taking hold for the same reasons FidoNet has survived and thrived. The major difference between a network of NANs and FidoNet is reach. FidoNet was always an acquired taste, and node operators had to be fairly technically competent, which limited its popularity. WiFi node operators just need to know how to plug devices together. In fact, most WiFi users are unwittingly providing access to their neighbors since the default configuration of most WiFi devices doesn’t enable security (see previous SNS issues here and here).

Because this ubiquitous connectivity threatens commercial interests such as those building 3G cell phone networks or those trying to sell access out of a Starbucks or an airport, I predict government regulators will attempt to shut down NANs through legislation. In this burgeoning technology environment, attempts to ban a particular technology would be useless, but the FCC could require an expensive license for anyone running a WiFi node, for example.

I further predict that efforts to stunt this movement will ultimately fail. The people want to communicate, they want to do it cheaply, and they want their speech unfettered by attempts at censorship or control. Like a true grassroots effort, mesh networking will be as hard to kill as suburban crabgrass.

NY Times (registration required)

Briefly Noted

  • Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: Take our survey on corporate policies on home use of network resources.

    StratVantage has launched a new service, CTOMentor™, designed to allow Chief Technology Officers and other technical leaders to get rid of the Guilt Stack, that pile of magazines you’ll get around to reading someday.

    CTOMentor is a subscription advisory service tailored to customers’ industry and personal information needs. Four times a year CTOMentor provides a four-hour briefing for subscribers and their staffs on the most important emerging technology trends that could affect their businesses. As part of the service, subscribers also get a weekly email newsletter, Just the Right Stuff™, containing links to the Top 10 Must Read articles needed to stay current. These and other CTOMentor services will let you Burn Your Inbox™.

    As part of its launch, CTOMentor is offering a two-part white paper on peer-to-peer technology: Peer-to-Peer Computing and Business Networks: More Than Meets the Ear. Part 1, What is P2P?, is available for free on the CTOMentor Web site. Part 2, How Are Businesses Using P2P?, is available for $50.

  • Beta vs. Reality: Upon announcing the availability of the CTOMentor P2P white paper on a discussion list, I got into an email exchange with Mike Compeau, Vice President, Business Development and Planning at Cutting Edge Software. He asked that I list his company’s P2P for handhelds product, which is now in beta, in the P2P4B2B directory of peer-to-peer companies. After not finding any mention of this product on the Cutting Edge Web site, I wrote him back declining. He replied, noting that I listed defunct P2P companies in the directory. Here’s some of our lighthearted exchange, including his wonderful final retort, which made me LOL (Laugh Out Loud):

    MC: Funny... as if having a defunct company listed is better than having a company with a real product in beta listed?  :)
ME: Point noted. But it is better to have P2Ped in vain than never to have P2Ped at all.

MC: Very good...
To retort: (since this is fun)
It is better to have made money while building an operating P2P that wins a Best of COMDEX award, than to have had a 18 month stealth cycle with anxious investors looking over your shoulders and return from COMDEX empty handed, out of money, and a few companies mad at you for stopping shipment of a modestly useful product they used for 4 months...
  • Virtual Keyboard: This goes in the “Things I Thought Would Be a Great Idea Years Ago, But Was Too Lazy to Pursue” category. Alert SNS Reader Larry Kuhn sent along a link to a new virtual keyboard. It displays a keyboard image on any surface in front of your PDA. You place your fingers over the virtual keys and type. Of course, there’s no tactile feedback as when you press a real key, but it sure looks handy.

  • Gartner On eBusiness Urgency: Gartner predicts that "enterprises that fail to develop an organization fully adapted to the new economic environment in the next two years will be driven out of the market by 2005." In other words, transform into an eBusiness now or get beaten by those who do. In classic style, Gartner assigns only a 0.6 probability to this prediction, but my feeling is the relatively low probability concerns the date of the forecast, not its inevitability.

  • I Want This Phone, er PDA: Handspring has released its Treo™ communicator, a combined Palm-compatible PDA and a GSM cell phone (with service from either VoiceStream or Cingular). It’s got everything except a decent cell phone partner with national coverage: 16MB of memory, SMS message service, a thumb keyboard like the BlackBerry, and a Web browser. When the heck is ATT Wireless going to introduce a cool phone?

  • 802.11a Equipment Available: I know you’re probably confused about all the various wireless standards; I know I am. Most of the time, when you hear about wireless networking, it’s about 802.11b, a standard that runs at 11Mbps and is also called WiFi. Well, WiFi has a faster cousin, 802.11a (a name only an engineer could love – see a previous SNS). It runs at 56Mbps, and equipment to run the protocol is now becoming widely available. Actiontec offers a $149 PC Card that is compatible with existing 802.11a-based systems, such as Intel's Pro/Wireless 5000 LAN access point. Right now, such cards are likely overkill if all you want is Internet access, but if you want to do local network file access and transfers, it’s not a bad thing to do it five times faster, is it?

  • The Shoemaker’s Children: AOL has thrown in the towel and admitted that its email system is not appropriate for business use. AOL Time Warner has been given the OK for its employees to use an e-mail system other than the company's own. Workers in the old Time Warner units complained that AOL's mail was unreliable, would not permit large attachments, and did not have features business users want such as an out-of-office reply.
    CBS Marketwatch

  • Buzzkill: Alert SNS Reader Todd Mortenson sent along a link to BuzzWhack, an irreverent compendium of pompous, buzzword-infested prose. BuzzWhack defines buzzword thusly: “A usually important-sounding word or phrase used primarily to impress laypersons.” A buzzwhacker is: “A person who receives some degree of pleasure in bursting the bubbles of the pompous.” You can add BuzzWhack content to your Website for as little as a dollar a day. I’m passing. There’s quite enough buzzwords and buzzwhackage going on on the StratVantage site already.

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About The Author

Announcing CTOMentor, a New Service from StratVantage

Can’t Get Enough of ME?

In the unlikely event that you want more of my opinions, I’ve started a Weblog. It’s the fashionable thing for pundits to do, and I’m doing it too. A Weblog is a datestamped collection of somewhat random thoughts and ideas assembled on a Web page. If you’d like to subject the world to your thoughts, as I do, you can create your own Weblog. You need to have a Web site that allows you FTP access, and the free software from This allows you to right click on a Web page and append your pithy thoughts to your Weblog.

I’ve dubbed my Weblog entries “Stratlets”, and they are available at Let me know what you think.

Also check out the TrendSpot for ranking of the latest emerging trends.

In Memoriam

Gerald M. Ellsworth

March 14, 1928 - July 5, 2003

In Memoriam

Jane C. Ellsworth

July 20, 1928 - July 20, 2003