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Solar-powered mesh project helps find new frog

Networking project in the Amazon turns up unknown amphibian, proving Negroponte right in more ways than one.

A solar-powered wireless mesh network in the Amazon basin has played a part in the discovery of a new species of frog.

The frog, nicknamed Yachanita, was discovered last month at a field station that was connected by mesh to the Funedesin (Foundation for Integrated Education and Development) network in Yachana, Ecuador.

According to Richard Lander, co-founder of U.K. mesh networking company LocustWorld--whose technology is used in the network--the scheme itself may be the first of its kind.

"We have lots of mesh networks where the occasional inaccessible mesh box gets power by solar or wind or replaceable battery, but this entire center is powered by solar electricity. The fact that this center in the middle of the jungle is able to achieve Internet connectivity through solar power, we think, is unique," Lander told ZDNet UK on Friday.

Mesh networks are constructed out of a number of access points that can automatically form connections with other nodes within range, and reroute traffic if a node drops offline. This makes the networks self-organizing. They can be set up in a matter of days and at a fraction of the cost needed to establish a traditional telecommunications network.

The network was designed and installed by Bruce Schulte, an American who was inspired by the concept of sustainable mesh networking after attending a training session held in Ecuador last year by LocustWorld's Joe Roper.

Running off a single satellite link, the Yachana network provides connectivity for a biological research center several miles downriver, as well as for the local high school.

Funedesin manages to squeeze uses in telemedicine, ecotourism, solar power, ecology and education out of that single connection. The foundation even recently moved its office back into the middle of the jungle--it had previously needed to operate from the capital.

Supported by the revenue it gains through 2,000 annual visits from ecological tourists, Funedesin will now be setting up a college nearby to train others in the simple art of mesh networking, with support from LocustWorld.

Lander told ZDNet UK that such networks were fulfilling a prophecy by MIT Labs co-founder Nicholas Negroponte, who predicted in a 2002 Wired magazine article that each Wi-Fi system would end up "like a small router relaying to its nearest neighbors," with messages hopping "peer-to-peer, leaping from lily to lily like frogs."

"Negroponte had the vision to see this concept of lily pads--we've implemented it using mesh networking worldwide," said Lander. "It's got so far 'round the world that now we've got new species of frogs being discovered."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.