The Hot Spot Plan

By Carmen Nobel Print this article Print

New York, London, Seoul and other major cities are desperate to eliminate traffic gridlock. Congestion fees may provide relief, but Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase believes she has the perfect wireless solution. 

The Hot Spot Plan

While she can’t predict exact traffic patterns, Chase maintains that in city traffic—even with mitigated congestion—vehicles will stay close enough to each other for an effective wireless signal handoff.

Mobile meshes are nothing new, although historically they have been relegated to public-safety applications. For example, last year Lakewood, N.J., installed a mobile mesh network for its police cars, using hardware from PacketHop, allowing public-safety officials to exchange data feeds while on patrol or en route to emergencies. Several hardware companies, including Motorola, market mesh solutions for vehicles and aircraft.

“Doing a mesh handoff at really high speeds is hard, but in cities, traffic is moving only 7 to 15 miles an hour,” Chase says.

Under Chase’s plan, people who purchase and install the Wi-Fi devices in their cars would receive an incentive—say, the first $100 to $150 in congestion fees free. And if they are built in volume, the in-car devices won’t cost more than $75 each, she says, especially if they are built using standard hardware components and open-source software. The system would include a means of detecting those who neglect to install a box, although this part of the plan is vague.

“I think the best way to do this is carrot and stick,” Russell says. “You have incentives to comply, such as discounted prepaid tolls, coupons that could be redeemed for the installation cost, etc. Then you make the violation penalty really high. You could install automated detection devices, like the cameras that take a photo only when a car runs a light, or you could have [parking enforcement officers] do spot checks with a handheld detector that would alert them when a vehicle doesn’t have a device.”

If commuters complied, the cities would only be responsible for providing key backhaul nodes at places such as critical intersections and exit ramps, Chase says. And unlike in a fixed municipal mesh network, nobody would have to worry about paying a building owner or a utility company for the right to mount the wireless access points on light poles or rooftops, because the access points would be in the cars.

“When we look at the death knells of the [Earthlink] business model, it reiterates why this is brilliant,” Chase says. “It’s end-user installed with an open-source model, so it’s incredibly cheap. Just look at Meraki.”

Meraki Networks is a Mountain View, Calif., startup that picked up in San Francisco where Earthlink left off. Meraki last summer tested a free Wi-Fi network in the city’s densely populated Mission and Castro neighborhoods. The novel part was that rather than dealing with commercial mounting fees, the company asked city residents if they would volunteer to install small Meraki repeaters in their homes. Every box increased the radio signal and strengthened the network.

“It grew really fast,” says Sanjit Biswas, Meraki’s co-founder and CEO. “In less than six months, we had 500 people install the repeaters. They know they’re getting better free Internet access by having it in their window.” In January, boosted by a $20 million round of venture capital, Meraki announced plans to expand the network throughout San Francisco—footing the entire bill for free Wi-Fi and giving residents the option of installing repeaters to increase network bandwidth.

Biswas is quick to say that the company doesn’t plan repeat performances in other cities, explaining that hosting its own boxes for free is not enough of a revenue generator.

“There’s value to us doing this from an R&D perspective,” Biswas says. “That’s our motivation for doing it. But we don’t have plans to run any other networks. Our business is in enabling service providers.”

As for the idea of collaborating on a mobile mesh with Chase, who has shared her plans with Meraki, Biswas says, “We’re starting with baby steps, setting up fixed networks. You have to have all the pieces fit together to be sustainable on any scale.”

This article was originally published on 2008-02-21
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