NSF Backs Open Source Wireless Mesh Project

Earthlink and Tropos might be looking to make millions off of muni wireless, but members of the open source community are hard at work trying to make wireless networking free. And they just got some funds to help their cause. Sascha Meinrath, of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network, CUWIN, just called me this morning to say his open source wireless mesh project received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Sascha says he plans to use the money to add staff, scour the globe for open source partners, and boost research and testing.

The organization had been applying to the NSF for 4 years now, and previously Sascha had been paying much of the research fees out of pocket–so the news is good for him on a lot of levels! A project like this could help make wireless broadband available for communities that can’t afford it and address the real digital divide. Not just recreate the economics of the traditional phone and cable operators with a slightly less monthly subscriber fee.

I thought maybe the NSF was starting to pay attention to an open source wireless project because of what wireless networking was shown to do in recovery efforts in Hurricane Katrina and the East Asian tsunami. Sascha said he wasn’t sure why the NSF approved them this time.

The open source code addresses the networking layer that improves the strength and reduces redundancies of the wireless signal. The code is in beta form and freely available on the organization’s web site. Making this technology freely available to anyone might make some companies with nice profits from wireless mesh, a tad unhappy. But the companies that are confident in their own technology probably won’t mind.

Sascha said he has also been talking to a few companies for partnerships. For example, he says possible partnerships could be wireless hand held device makers looking to test products over a test mesh network, that don’t want to pay a lot to use an already established network owned by a for-profit company.

Allan Leinwand, a partner at Panorama Capital, is an open source networking advocate and funded Vyatta the open source router company. He says a funding like this is really exciting for the open source network community, but that it’s also a big leap to turn a project into a widely used product.

The CUWIN project is really small, so whether the code will become popular is unclear. Sascha said his group started as “a bunch of geeks in my living room and grew to an international community.” Maybe these funds could help the technology follow suit.