RealTime IT News

Open Source Arrives for Municipal Networks

Starting this week, the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN) in Illinois is shipping version 0.5.5 of its open-source BSD-licensed operating system software that will turn old, inexpensive PCs into the backbone of a mesh network.

All a person has to do is burn the software to a disc, then use it to boot up a computer. If the computer has a supported Wi-Fi card installed, the PC becomes just another self-administering node on a wireless network using a mesh topology.

"We've done stuff with the routing protocols to make it all self-configuring," says Sascha Meinrath, the project coordinator at CUWiN. The goal, he says, is for anyone to be able to build a WLAN infrastructure "from off-the-shelf parts [and] recycled computers."

The target audience ranges from developing nations—a Peace Corps group is already using the software on old Dell Pentiums with D-Link Wi-Fi cards in Ghana—to full-fledged municipal WLANs. Until now, most such deployments have used commercial hardware and software from companies like Tropos Networks and BelAir Networks. Meinrath claims that CUWiN 0.5.5 is capable of "scaling up better than most of the commercial proprietary systems."

CUWiN has been working on this project since 2000, initially to install a 32-node Wi-Fi cloud testbed in Urbana, Ill. It was funded with various grants that are running out this year. However, there are no plans to make this software commercial. The model is similar to that of Mozilla or the various Linux distributions—funding will have to come from donations by individuals or foundations.

"We hope to open [software development] up to more outside developers. We'll do more coordination of people doing patches and features," says Meinrath. "For three years, we were all-volunteer, and paying for all the equipment out of pocket. If we can pay rent and eat, we're happy."

By continuing to offer the software for free, CUWiN pictures a day when hardware makers use it to offer incredibly low-cost hardware, such as sub-$100 wireless nodes sold in retail stores like Best Buy to extend a mesh network.

The media-neutral software can be used for voice over IP, file sharing and more, says Meinrath, but he notes that it is still a work in progress and is by no means finished: "It's not even 1.0 yet," he says, "but we can invite communities to try it out." The future already looks interesting. CUWiN software will be used in an upcoming neighborhood technology deployment that the group plans to do in the course of a weekend. "It's not a five-year rollout anymore. It's 20 to 30 volunteers that can cover a large geographic area."

The version 0.5.5 software will be uploaded to CUWiN's Web site by the end of this week.