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How Wireless Mesh Networks Work

Applications for Wireless Mesh Networks


Cities and Municipalities

With wireless mesh networks, cities can connect citizens and public services over a widespread high-speed wireless connection.

A growing number of downtown areas are installing public WiFi hotspots. Mesh networks allow cities to inexpensively and simply link all those hotspots together to cover the entire municipality.


Some advantages of municipal mesh networks:

  • Commuters can check their e-mail on the train, in the park, at a restaurant.
  • Public works officials can monitor the diagnostics of the city's power and water supply by installing wireless nodes in water treatment facilities, sewers and generators. There's no need to dig trenches to run cables.
  • Public safety and emergency workers can access secure virtual networks within the larger network to keep communication lines open, even when regular phone or cellular service is down. With mesh nodes mounted on streetlights and stop lights, police and firefighters can remain connected to the network, even while moving.

According to a report by in March 2007, 81 U.S. cities have already installed citywide or region-wide municipal wireless networks and 164 more are actively building such networks. The report also says that 38 U.S. cities already have municipal wireless networks for the exclusive use of public safety and city employees.

Not all existing municipal wireless networks are mesh networks, however. Some are powered by a technology called WiMAX which has the ability to broadcast signals over large distances using powerful microwave transmissions. Other municipal networks use a combination of mesh, WiMAX and others.

Developing CountriesWireless mesh networks are useful in countries without a widespread wired infrastructure, such as telephone service or even electricity. Solar-powered nodes can be connected to one cellular or satellite Internet connection, which could keep a whole village online.

Isolated Locations, Rugged TerrainEven in developed countries, there are rugged locations too far off the grid for traditional high-speed Internet service providers. Wireless mesh networks are being considered for these areas. A series of nodes would be mounted from the nearest available wired access point out to the hard-to-reach area.

EducationMany colleges, universities and high schools are converting their entire campuses to wireless mesh networks. This solution eliminates the need to bury cables in old buildings and across campuses. With dozens of well-placed indoor and outdoor nodes, everyone will be connected all the time.

Mesh networks also have the capacity to handle the high-bandwidth needs required by students who need to download large files.

Students can connect anywhere.
Students can connect anywhere.

Schools can also rig their entire public safety system up to the network, monitoring security cameras and keeping all personnel in constant communication in emergency situations.

HealthcareMany hospitals are spread out through clusters of densely constructed buildings that were not built with computer networks in mind. Wireless mesh nodes can sneak around corners and send signals short distances through thick glass to ensure access in every operating room, lab and office.

The ability to connect to the network is crucial as more doctors and caregivers maintain and update patient information -- test results, medical history, even insurance information -- on portable electronic devices carried from room to room.

HospitalityHigh-speed Internet connectivity at hotels and resorts has become the rule, not the exception. Wireless mesh networks are quick and easy to set up indoors and outdoors without having to remodel existing structures or disrupt business.

Temporary VenuesConstruction sites can capitalize on the easy set-up and removal of wireless mesh networks. Architects and engineers can stay wired to the office, and Ethernet-powered surveillance cameras can decrease theft and vandalism. Mesh nodes can be moved around and supplemented as the construction project progresses.

Other temporary venues like street fairs, outdoor concerts and political rallies can set-up and tear down wireless mesh networks in minutes.

WarehousesThere is simply no effective way to keep track of stock and shipping logistics without the types of Ethernet-enabled handheld scanners used in modern warehouses. Wireless mesh networks can ensure connectivity throughout a huge warehouse structure with little effort.

Future ApplicationsThe U.S. military, which helped develop wireless mesh technology, foresees a day when thousands of microchip-size mesh nodes can be dropped onto a battlefield to set up instant scouting and surveillance networks. Information can be routed to both ground troops and headquarter personnel.

Carmakers and telecom companies are working to develop Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) powered by street and highway-based wireless mesh networks. Using an automated network of surveillance cameras and in-car sensors, public safety officials can tightly monitor traffic accidents and dangerous road conditions.

PC Magazine reports that there's even technology in the works that would alert a driver when a nearby car deploys its airbag. Mobile mesh networks also promise upgrades for in-car entertainment options like digital music and movie downloads.

Chipmakers and network software developers like Ember Corporation already sell automated home and automated building solutions that employ mesh networks to control and remotely monitor surveillance systems, climate control and entertainment systems. The future applications for wireless mesh networks are limited only by our imaginations.

Read on for much more information about wireless mesh networks and technologies that make them work.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

How WiFi Works

How Municipal WiFi Works

How Home Networking Works

How Power-line Networking Works

How Phone-line Networking Works

How Internet Infrastructure Works

How Routers Work

How Virtual Private Networks Work

How Home Networking Works

More Great Links

Wireless Philadelphia

Tibetan Technology Center

Microsoft's Wireless Mesh Research Page

Firetide: Multi-Service Mesh Networks

Ember: Zigbee Wireless Semiconductor Solutions