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Definition

Roughly following TechTarget and Telecom Glossary 2K definitions, we define a mesh network as follows: "A mesh network is a network that employs one of two connection arrangements, full mesh topology or partial mesh topology. In the full mesh topology, each node is connected directly to each of the others. In the partial mesh topology, nodes are connected to only some, not all, of the other nodes." Note that these definitions mention no dependency on any time parameter -- nothing is necessarily dynamic in a mesh. However, in recent years, and in connection with wireless networks, the term "mesh" is often used as a synonym for "ad hoc" or "mobile" network. Obviously, combining the two characteristics of a mesh topology and ad hoc capabilities is a very attractive proposition. So, when we speak of a wireless mesh network, we assume a network that handles many-tomany connections and is capable of dynamically updating and optimizing these connections. This may be (but does not have to be) a "mobile network" in which it is assumed that each (or at least some) of the nodes of the network are mobile units that change position over time. The dynamic management of complex routing information, very likely to include information about external networks (e.g. the whole wide Internet and the gateways to it), is arguably the biggest challenge for (dynamic) mesh protocols. The "mobility" scenario in which each client unit is a PDA, mobile phone, or other mobile unit is an appealing scenario for airport lounges, shopping malls, offices, and parties. While this vision might be valid, it may still be some years before we see a successful implementation of this idea, especially given the current constraints in battery and processing power of typical mobile units. However, utilizing other strengths of mesh networks, we can come up with relevant real-world scenarios where hybrids between "static" and "ad-hoc" networks offer some clear advantages -networks where a number of static nodes form the matrix (the substrate) in which other nodes appear, roam, and disappear. In a similar way, hybrids between mesh topologies and other topologies (star, ring, etc.) are likely to be optimal solutions in real-world environments. Often, drawing a simple map of potential nodes and the link blocks (mountains, trees, buildings, clouds, human beings, etc.) in between them will suggest the appropriate mix ratio and the network pattern to deploy. Some of the key requirements for these networks include that the network infrastructure be decentralized, to avoid a central point of failure and control, and that the technology used be both cheap enough and simple enough that it can be maintained and expanded by locals with limited technology experience. This sometimes means using off-the-shelf hardware combined with cheap, homebrew antennas, as well as looking hard at some technologies that are gradually becoming mainstream enough to be easily deployable. These technologies include VoIP and socalled Mesh networks. The argument for VoIP is obvious, especially given the power of voice communications in areas where literacy cannot be taken for granted.

The subject of this article is mesh networks, another technology that is gradually maturing to a point where it cannot be ignored when considering various wireless networking technologies for deployment. While the first large-scale community mesh deployments are yet to be seen, existing lab-level implementations and feasibility tests have demonstrated enough advantages to motivate further experimenting. Let's run down some of the reasons why mesh networks should get a second look:

Price: 802.11 radios have become quite cheap, but the radios are often still among the most expensive elements of such a network. The fact that each mesh node runs both as a client and as a repeater potentially means saving on the number of radios needed and thus the total budget. Ease and simplicity: If you have a box that is pre-installed with wireless mesh software and uses standard wireless protocols such as 802.11b/g, the setup is extremely simple. Since routes are configured dynamically, it is often enough to simply drop the box into the network, and attach whatever antennas are required for it to reach one or more existing neighboring nodes (assuming that we can solve the issue of IP address allocation). Organization and business models: The decentralized nature of mesh networks lends itself well to a decentralized ownership model wherein each participant in the network owns and maintains their own hardware, which can greatly simplify the financial and community aspects of the system. Network robustness: The character of mesh topology and ad-hoc routing promises greater stability in the face of changing conditions or failure at single nodes, which will quite likely be under rough and experimental conditions. Power: The substrate nodes of a mesh network -- possibly excepting those nodes that maintain an up-link to the Internet -- can be built with extremely low power requirements, meaning that they can be deployed as completely autonomous units with solar, wind, or hydro power. (A side comment: Piggybacking mesh networks on projects that primarily aim at energy production might be a very feasible strategy -- with every panel or windmill, a node. Power generating units are typically connected to points of infrastructure and human presence. This makes them valid locations for network nodes. As a secondary benefit, the presence of integrated network nodes within power networks may allow for better monitoring and management.) Integration: Mesh hardware is typically small, noiseless, and easily encapsulated in weatherproof boxes. This means it also integrates nicely outdoors as well as in human housing. Reality fit: Reality rarely comes as a star, ring, or a straight line. In difficult terrain -- be that urban or remote -- where not every user can see one or few central points, chances are she can see one or more neighboring users.