A Proposal for a Wireless Internet of Portable Nodes (WIPNet)

by Jon Roland KC5MYS

The prospects that the Y2K problem, or other such cascade failure arising from other causes, might bring down power grids and telecommunications systems, suggests that we consider establishing an alternative communications system that could support emergency services in such an event.

One of the main ways that emergency communications has been provided in the past is through amateur radio networks. However, the advent of packet radio and other forms of digital communications on amateur bands suggests a better use of the bandwidth, especially since a nationwide or worldwide failure of essential systems would be likely to overwhelm the ability of traditional amateur voice communications to cope with the situation.

A number of amateur and commercial researchers have been exploring expansion of the Internet to radio links, using the TCP/IP and AX-25 protocols and making use of both the amateur bands and the newly available spread spectrum bands. These are represented by such efforts as FlexNet and AMPRnet, and such services as Ricochet. See http://www.constitution.org/wipnet/wipnet.htm

This is to suggest that we get together to establish a much more ambitious system. The effort is complicated by the need to confine the use of amateur bands to licensed amateurs, which is not a limitation for the use of spread spectrum bands. The following are the design specifications for such a system.

  • All nodes would be portable computers and transceivers. There would be no wired backbone, although there could be connections to the wired backbone to make use of it, if it is available, such as to span what would otherwise be breaks in the network.
  • The geographic range of the system would be nationwide or worldwide. Any node would be able to send an email message to any other anywhere on the network, regardless of the number of hops in between. There would also be support for newsgroup, ftp and WWW services, but these might be restricted in the event of an emergency.
  • The primary bands would be spread spectrum, with perhaps some use of HF bands for longer distances, to span breaks in the network.
  • The addressing and routing scheme would permit all nodes to move about freely, and perhaps rapidly, without every node having to have a complete database of every node and its location, although such a database might be available on some nodes, making them DNS servers.
  • There would be a priortization protocol to permit high priority messages to have routing priority over lower ones.

There are many advantages to the use of spread spectrum. It supports higher bandwidths, makes more efficient use of a given band, and provides better security. At the moment its use is limited to the 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz bands, and to 1 W, but amplifiers are available for use outside the U.S., and we can expect that use at higher powers would be excusable in the event of a national emergency, as would the use by non-licensed personnel. A protocol would have to be adopted for exchanging sequence codes among cooperating transceivers, but PGP-encrypted messages on a standard contact sequence could be used for that and for authentication of the nodes. It would also be better suited for preventing packets from going astray.

It would be possible, in principle, for nodes within range of each other to update one another's link databases, and for those databases to be transmitted to other nodes to update their, on a continuing basis, so that every node would maintain an updated database of every node and which was in range of which other, however, this would involve too heavy an overhead. A different approach would be for each node to transmit its approximate grid location, either set manually or taken from GPS, and messages routed along a node path that would take them in the general direction of the target node until a link was established.

The line-of-sight range of both VHF FM and SS is about 20 miles, under good conditions, and using antennas that could be carried by a person. That means that to establish a nationwide network, and to provide sufficient bandwidth for heavy message traffic, there would need to be a fairly dense positioning of nodes not more than 20 miles apart, and preferably closer, across the country. This could be a problem in some of the Western states, especially desert country, where population density is low, but in an emergency node-bearing operators could scatter themselves and position themselves to make sure that coverage was complete. Three or four operators in each of the 3000 counties in the United States might be sufficient.

Small notebook or wearable computers with large disk drives are now becoming available, and they should soon become fairly inexpensive. SS 1 W transceivers are also becoming available at a cost of about $200 each. The only other things that would be needed would be power packs, a good antenna, and perhaps extra disk drive capacity, all of which could be carried by an operator in a backpack.

The importance of portability must be emphasized. In an emergency, the availability of fuel to operate a vehicle cannot be assumed, although vehicle based mobile systems might be made use of if available. But operators should plan on being able to operate on foot, perhaps using solar cells to recharge their batteries. The operator will also have to carry water, food, medical, and other survival supplies on him, so the communications equipment needs to be as small, light, and easy to use while on the move as possible.

The military has such systems, but, typically, they are too expensive for civilian use. Indeed, they are too expensive for widespread use by the military, which is why we cannot depend on military or national guard personnel to provide such services in an emergency. This needs to be a civilian, autonomous system that is not under central authority or control, like the Internet itself, and that therefore cannot easily be interdicted or interfered with by anyone.

We need to vigorously pursue the development, testing, and deployment of such a system, with the goal of full deployment not later than October, 1999. Comments for ways to do this are welcome.

Text Version | Home  Wireless Internet
Original URL: http://www.constitution.org/wipnet/wipnetprop.htm
Jon Roland of the Constitution Society
Original date: 1997/6/15 — 

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