LocustWorld: Swarming over the traditional telcos

Summary: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."

Topics: Networking

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