LocustWorld: Swarming over the traditional telcos

UK start-up LocustWorld could take on the traditional telcos using innovative mesh networking technology

Gates and Allen. Jobs and Wozniak. Hewlett and Packard. The technology sector has a history of successful double acts. Two enthusiasts, almost always male, come together with the ambition of creating something new. They succeed, graduating from the bedroom or the garage to the corporate boardroom, and pretty soon they're counting their billions.

LocustWorld, a small UK start-up that is making waves in the wireless networking world, isn't in the same league as Microsoft, Apple or HP but founders Richard Lander and Jon Anderson may have created something a bit special.

The duo appear to have cracked mesh networking [see box-out] with some innovative open source software that, coupled with affordable hardware, is being deployed worldwide to close the broadband divide.

The software in question is the LocustWorld MeshAP. Written by Anderson back in October 2002, it powers the Meshbox, a small, low-power, Wi-Fi enabled, fan-less PC. Gather together a few Meshboxes in a village, connect one to the Internet, and hey presto a wireless network is born. But put a few thousand together, and you start threatening telecoms companies and mobile network operators.

Lander and Anderson were introduced in 2000 by a mutual friend, and by October 2002 the MeshAP, the Meshbox and LocustWorld had been born. This was a critical time for the UK broadband market, when thousands of rural locations had no hope of affordable high-speed connectivity any time soon. Many broadband have-nots hoped mesh networking could be the answer.

Famous within the UK community broadband scene, the pair are familiar faces at technology conferences; Anderson typically dressed down in classic techie garb and ponytail, with Lander likely to be sporting a sharp suit and a handful of amusing tales.

In recent months, LocustWorld has quietly made a couple of breakthroughs in voice over IP. Most excitingly, it has added support for Asterisk (open source telephony software) that can replace a traditional PSTN telephone switch. The combination of VoIP and mesh networking has a potentially massive impact.

But just how did the two entrepreneurs manage to build and run a business that powers hundred of wireless networks across 53 different countries?

Before LocustWorld there was Locust, described as a text messaging-based IM system. Developed by Anderson, it ran on the Orange network from the late 1990s, and allowed users to chat and share news. You could also use it to access the Web, or even send a fax. Clever stuff, but soon after Orange was taken over by France Telecom it was axed -- by someone who wasn't impressed that the free texts sent out by Locust to its users were costing them £45,000 a month.

Never mind that each free text probably generated several premium SMSes as the Locust community communicated. Although the execution was deferred for a year after a storm of protest over Locust's cancellation, the blade fell in 2003.

This sorry episode germinated a determination to create a rival wireless telecoms network on which innovative services could thrive. Having also run his own Web hosting business, Anderson understood the Internet well and knew how to run large, traffic-heavy network. Crucially, he also knew his way round the open source landscape.

"Most of our work is build on LAMP, which stands for Linux, Apache, My SQL and PHP," explained Lander, when ZDNet UK grabbed some time in his hectic schedule to discuss LocustWorld's past and future.

Lander is more of a veteran then Anderson. He cut his teeth at IBM sales school in the 1980s, where he was involved with Big Blue's first Unix-powered hardware, and later ran a software developer called Analystic.

"We've both got really good credential, which combine selling, marketing, business management, finance, testing, software design, customer service and support," he says. "If you had to have a director for one of those things, you'd need to be a big firm."

At present, both Lander and Anderson work from home offices, so any would-be directors might have to make do with a desk in the wardrobe. But it's the deal with Asterisk that perhaps offers the best chance of upsizing to a shiny LocustWorld HQ.

No lesser an authority on open source than Jon "Mad Dog" Hall predicted in October that Asterisk would help to make the open source telephony market bigger than that of Linux.

Because the MeshAP now supports Asterisk, meshes powered by LocustWorld can carry VoIP traffic to other mesh users and also via the Internet to a telephone anywhere in the world.

LocustWorld also sells a service called Mesh Voice aimed at corporate customers who want to replace their office PBX phone system with something a bit more twenty-first century. This includes a deal letting them link their voice traffic with the public telephony network.

In theory, this VoIP support means a mesh customer could dispense with their BT phone line and do voice and high-speed data over the Web via mesh.

Lander, to his credit, doesn't play the hype card by claiming that mesh VoIP will slay the likes of BT or Vodafone. He's not ruling out making them sweat a little though.

"It's not about mesh overtaking PSTN networks, it's all about them working together," he says, suggesting that users will benefit from accounts on several different networks.

"VoIP and voice over mesh can provide competition to mobile companies," he adds, claiming that while it won't make them go bust this competition might "hurt their profits a bit".

A typical single mesh rollout today could include as many as 200 individual nodes, or Meshboxes. A network of this size could easily support over a thousand users. If LocustWorld's growth continues, its user base could be attractive to a range of service providers.

"The mesh lowers the boundaries to entry for 1,001 companies offering different services," says Lander. He sees LocustWorld as an "umbrella" under which many different products can be offered.

"It's the difference between railways and roads. To operate a railway network you need billions of dollars, but anyone can buy a car and provide a service on any scale -- be it a white van man or [haulage magnate] Eddie Stobart."

And it seems there's no shortage of people keen to enjoy the ride. The 53 countries where a LocustWorld mesh has been installed are as far afield as Spain (lots of ex-pat developments with no telecoms networks built), Bangladesh and Honduras (both places where mobile phone networks are a bit pricy for local pockets). The day after our meeting Lander was meeting with a visitor from Nigeria to talk mesh, and an interested party from Turkey was expected a few days later.

The MeshAP can actually be downloaded for free, so LocustWorld only makes money if someone buys Meshboxes as well or chooses Mesh Voice or the MeshAP-Pro -- a commercial service that offers a proper service level agreement and more features than the standard MeshAP.

There are around 10,000 Meshboxes out there at present, up from 8,000 in the summer, so growth is healthy. Many individual networks are doubling in size every three to six months, the kind of exponential progress the IT world has grown used to in the chip sector. "This is the Locust Law," jokes Lander, comparing it to Moore's Law.

Twenty-nine percent of all LocustWorld meshes are in the UK, making it the second largest market after the US' 38 percent. There have been indications that the British mesh market is becoming more sophisticated. Three community networks have recently upgraded to MeshAP-Pro, suggesting that their users now expect a proper service and are prepared to pay more for it.

Universities are taking an interest in mesh networking, as their IT managers look for the best way of making their campuses awash with high-speed Internet access. Some local authorities are rumoured to also have plans for mesh.

But for the most impressive use of the MeshAP, you need to go to Washington, Indiana. There, the police drive around with Meshboxes stashed in their boots, happily transmitting away thanks to a 12v power connection from the dashboard. When there's an incident, several mesh-enabled cop cars will converge on in it and, before you can say "you're under arrest", you've got yourself a wireless network which the police and other emergency services can also take advantage of.

So if LocustWorld really is a success, how long will it be until it's snapped up by a big company, much as Motorola gobbled up Mesh Networks the other month?

Lander and Anderson have already sold a small stake in their company to an unnamed individual, who was described rather excitedly in some circles as a "secret investor". But for the moment there don't seem to be many plans to sell out, with Lander insisting they "feel good" about maintaining their independence.

They're not admitting to being worried about the competition from IT giants, with Lander dismissing Intel's involvement in mesh as "more talk and less action".

"Anyone who wants to compete with us with an alternative product would have to offer a better price/performance than our stuff. Our lowest price point is zero, and we have 1,000s of users," said Lander bullishly at a recent meeting.

And then he was off and away, to meet yet another group of people who are considering buying some Meshboxes.

Locustworld has an exciting couple of years behind it, and gives every impression of interesting times ahead. As Lander puts it: "We follow the sportswear philosophy of 'Just do it'."

 
What are mesh networks?

A mesh network is made up of a number of access points scattered around the place to bring high-speed wireless connectivity to an area. It's the very devil to get right. A mesh has to be self-organising, so that each access point can work out the best way to route a particular packet, and resilient enough to cope with sudden external changes that shake up the routing. It needs to be scalable, so that whoever's running the network can just drop extra nodes onto the network.

Technology guru Nicholas Negroponte forecast a few years ago that wireless networks would eventually be so common that a user could move from one to another as they travelled in the manner of a frog jumping between lily pads. Lander, though, says mesh networks are more like pinball machines.

"Because wireless packets travel at the speed of light, if you have a mesh a mile away that's in a prime position you can go via that to another place that's close to you but obstructed," says Lander. "You tend to get ricochets where you wouldn't expect them."

IT giants like Intel have thrown large amounts of cash and some very talented people at the problem of making mesh a success, but commercial products are scarce. Meanwhile, the LocustWorld AP is being used today to drive mesh networks all over the world.

 


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