Sharing Broadband to Increase Speed
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 15 - Two West Coast start-up companies have built new wireless technologies that take to heart Benjamin Franklin's exhortation to hang together rather than hang separately.
Both Mushroom Networks, which was started at the University of California, San Diego, and WiBoost Inc., based in Seattle, have built prototypes of simple wireless systems that make it possible for groups of neighbors to share their D.S.L. or cable Internet connections.
Both companies said that sharing high-speed lines might enable users in small neighborhood clusters to download files and Web pages up to 10 times faster.
The two companies, which developed their technologies separately, are taking slightly different approaches. But in both cases, neighbors would be able to connect relatively standard wireless routers that would permit their computers to receive data in parallel from multiple D.S.L. or cable network connections. The idea is similar to adding lanes to a freeway to improve traffic flow.
WiBoost, which is also the name of the company's technology system, now requires an antenna mounted outside the home. The company is exploring ways to license its technology to manufacturers and hopes to make WiBoost devices available for $200 to $300. In flat areas with minimal obstructions, the system might be able to link homes separated by several miles, with do-it-yourself installation.
Mushroom Networks is conducting trials using a device called an access point aggregator that is similar to a conventional home Wi-Fi router. It is intended to be used to connect homes or businesses that are closer together.
In principle, these technologies could work for a large group of neighbors, even with just a few Internet access points. That capacity - which could reduce the cost of Internet access considerably for its users - could, however, create substantial opposition from Internet service providers. Many of them are vigilant about restricting the sharing of individual network access points.
Both companies said they were going to great lengths to assure service providers that they did not plan to become bandwidth Napsters, a reference to the music file-sharing company that raised havoc with the audio recording industry.
The idea of linking several Internet data channels for greater speed is not a new one, but exploring a consumer application for the technology is a fresh notion, said Rene L. Cruz, a University of California computer scientist and founder of Mushroom Networks.
"We're pretty excited about the concept," he said. "We're looking for validation and we're looking for market demand."
The technology has merits, said George Henny, the president of Whidbey Telecom, an independent telecommunications firm based on Whidbey Island, Wash.
"There is an interesting potential for this technology," he said, "and it would be fun to put it in place."
The concept is related to the concept of wireless mesh networking, a technique that is used to extend Wi-Fi and related wireless networking standards over large areas by relaying Internet data among wireless receivers.
In this use, the two firms are exploiting the fact that most computer networks are used in an irregular or "bursty" fashion. Even though large numbers of users download e-mail, Web pages or music and video files, most of the time the networks sit idle, waiting for a computer user to strike a key or issue a command.
The capacity utilization rates of modern data networks have long been known to be remarkably low.
"Our studies show that, averaged across all users, the utilization is less than 1 percent of the total capacity," said James Baker, president of WiBoost.
Telephone companies may oversubscribe the capacity of their D.S.L. lines by an average of 14 to 20 times, said Mr. Cruz, and some researchers estimate that rate to be as high as 200 to 1. But because the networks are so underutilized, they can be used efficiently despite substantial oversubscription.
Neither Mr. Cruz nor Mr. Baker is certain of receiving the blessing of Internet service providers, which often go to great lengths to prohibit their customers from sharing service with others.
"We don't want freeloaders," said Mr. Baker. "We don't want the perception that it might be something that the I.S.P. might not like."
Both companies have approached Internet providers to discuss their ideas, and they said they had received some indications of interest.
One selling point stressed by both companies is that the technology is a simple way for D.S.L. providers to match the higher bandwidth offered by cable companies.
Moreover, the technology could be used as a "viral" marketing technique by Internet service providers if existing customers persuaded neighbors to sign up for service to take advantage of the wireless accelerator.
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