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
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
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
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
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