By Charles Waltner, [email protected]
With help from Cisco, climbers on Mount Everest might soon be scaling new heights in wireless communications.
Cisco has donated three Aironet 350 Wireless Bridges and booster antennas to support an attempt by Nepalese authorities to establish the world’s highest and most remote wireless data communications network and Internet connection.
Just as Everest serves as the ultimate challenge of an individual’s mettle, the mountain will be a harsh test for Cisco’s equipment. But organizers of the project selected Cisco gear specifically because of their confidence in its reliability and technological superiority to other wireless networking equipment.
The organizers hope to use the Aironet 350 Wireless Bridges to create a line-of-sight wireless link from the Everest base camp at 17,000 feet to a VSAT satellite dish anchored to a rock ridge 1,500 feet above the camp and over one mile away. The Aironet Bridges create a crucial link to the satellite dish, which cannot sit near base camp because the camp is on a glacier which constantly subtly shifts and would throw off the satellite dish’s alignment. Running a wired connection from the base camp to the dish is not practical over the precipitous terrain.
Depending on how the organizers configure the network, climbers will likely have access to the Internet at 64 to 128 kilobits per second (kbps) for email, Web access, and IP-based voice communications from a couple of computers the SPCC will maintain in a tent at the base camp. Think of it as a cyber café on ice.
The Nepalese authorities are still considering what they will charge for the connection. The group hopes to set up and test the network in time for the beginning of the three-month climbing season starting in March.
The Aironet 350 Bridges use the same 802.11 Wi-Fi technology now rapidly gaining popularity for “hot spot” wireless data links with laptop and hand held computing devices. Business, airports, coffee shops and other concerns are using Wi-Fi communications to free Internet users from the burden of wired connections for various data communications tasks.
Jim Forster, a Cisco Distinguished Engineer, coordinated the donation of the equipment to the project. Dave Hughes, a pioneer of remote data communications who works for the National Science Foundation, is assisting the Nepalese with deployment of the network.
Forster says Hughes contacted him because he was looking for the most reliable wireless equipment possible to hold up to the demanding Everest conditions. Temperature is the gravest concern. Even in the relatively balmy climbing season, the temperature can drop as low -15 degrees Fahrenheit. But Hughes, a veteran of ad hoc communications in places such as the Puerto Rican jungle, the Mongolian steppes, and the Wisconsin woods, plans to shelter the Aironet 350 Bridges in insulated boxes. Everyone hopes that will be enough protection from the bitter cold.
“The only question with the network is if the equipment can operate in such a brutal environment,” he says. “The engineers never imagined these devices would be used in such conditions. We will find out whether they can handle it.”
While the low temperature will prove challenging, the power needs of the Aironet 350 Bridges will help. The wireless equipment can run off of DC power and use as little as 24 volts, making them adaptable to the cell batteries, solar panels, and generator-supplied electricity available [on] the mountain.
Forster says it is not surprising that Hughes and the Nepalese authorities are using 802.11 wireless technology for the network. It is becoming an increasingly popular way to connect locations that have been impractical to wire. The Everest project, while unique, demonstrates the appeal of 802.11 technology for lesser developed or remote area areas where fiber, DSL, or cable are not likely to reach.
“I think the combo of wireless access for local connections and satellite for the backbone Internet link is a great idea because 802.11 Wi-Fi is so economical and easy to use,” Forster says.
The Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), which is the umbrella organization for the Everest base camp operations, is setting up the mountainside network. The SPCC issues licenses and permits on the Nepalese side of Everest, as well as enforcing trash management by climbing parties and maintaining ropes and ladders for negotiating the treacherous glacial approach. The Internet service could provide a much-needed financial boost, as the group is facing budget cuts from the beleaguered Nepalese government.
Between climbing seasons, entrepreneurs from the nearby village of Namche will take the gear down and use it to run their own wireless network and Internet connection, both for locals and trekking tourists.
Previously, climbers could use satellite radios reach the outside world from the base camp. But these devices are expensive to operate, add additional weight to packs, and offer extremely low data bandwidth, typically less than 8 kbps.
Forster shipped the Cisco gear to Nepal on January 16. After landing in Katmandu, it will eventually travel to the base camp by train, bus, yak and sherpas–whatever it takes.
“I get a kick out of thinking of this advanced networking gear being hauled in backpacks and by yaks up the mountain,” Forster says. “Now I’m exchanging email with a sherpa who will be one of the network’s managers. It just goes to show how technology is making the world an ever smaller place.”