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Last Updated: Monday, 24 February 2003, 10:27 GMT
Promise of intelligent networks
Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent in San Jose

US researchers are working on ways to make wireless computer networks organise themselves and manage data traffic levels without any human intervention.

Wires in back of a computer
Wires replaced by invisible networks
Computer scientists at Intel are developing mesh networking technologies that can automatically work out the best route for data as demand changes or devices join and leave the system.

The researchers believe such automatic networking systems will be needed as the numbers of devices that can communicate wirelessly proliferate.

If the research proves fruitful, homes could soon be studded with small, smart wireless relays that shuffle data around at very high speeds.

Hops and hubs

The ease with which wireless networks can be set up stands in dramatic contrast to the time and trouble it can take to set up computer networks with old-fashioned cables.

There are going to be tens of millions of computers out there with these capabilities and it's going to change the world
Mike Witteman, Intel
But welcome as this move to wireless is, researchers at Intel think that we have yet to exploit the full potential of these untethered networks.

"The first generation of wireless networks have just tried to replace the wires," said Mike Witteman, head of Intel's network architecture lab.

Mr Witteman said many companies were giving every wireless access points serving a cluster of PCs a direct connection to the corporate backbone.

Far better, he said, would be to use outlying wireless access points as relays to pipe traffic from far-flung groups of PCs back in a series of hops to a small number of hubs cabled in to the core network.

Mr Witteman said his group at Intel and others outside the company, were working on so-called mesh network systems that can work out the best way to link all the devices they are in contact with, and find the ideal route for the data the devices are swapping.

Ideal for rural areas

He said the mesh networking protocols would be of tremendous use in homes or workplaces of the future which would have many different devices all of which can swap data via radio.

"There are going to be tens of millions of computers out there with these capabilities and it's going to change the world," he said.

The advantage of mesh networks, in which the radio footprints of participating devices overlap, was that they did not rely on a central hub or access point to relay data between all the devices in that network, he said.

Mr Witteman and his colleagues are working on ways to instil wireless devices with the intelligence to work out all the different routes that data can take from one point to another in any network they form.

This, he said, would help them cope with sudden changes in the bandwidth of some links and re-route data via paths that can handle the data load.

"If you are moving video and music around they are very susceptible to quality degradation," he said.

Phone, pager and a laptop in close-up
Wireless devices will act as mini networks
In future mesh networks every element, be it a PC, mobile phone or PDA, could act as a data relay which could open up a vast array of new opportunities, said Mr Witteman.

Broadband service firms could use the wireless networks in the homes of subscribers to reach customers lying beyond their usual catchment area.

Security issues

Factories could tie together smart sensors into ad hoc networks that could relay information about conditions on production lines.

Ultimately Intel and others network hardware makers could be making tiny wireless relays that plug into power sockets and individually have a range of only a few metres but together give a home a robust, smart network that can shuffle data at speeds of more than 100 megabits per second.

Mr Witteman said work still had to be done on security for mesh networks to ensure that data only passed through trusted devices rather than just any that happen to be available.

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