New tech could be powering VoIP calls, internet, and radio in cars of the future

The idea of a mobile internet connection in your car is an attractive one.  With the majority of Americans hooked to the internet, the idea of the extra web time is highly appealing.  While it might dangerously tempting to driver, the concept has many safe applications.  From passengers enjoying surfing the net or VoIP  to internet streamed television or radio, there's a world of opportunity.  Even the drivers could benefit from something new to do while waiting in the parking lot at their local grocery store.

To help achieve this vision, an alliance between the University of Massachusetts, Microsoft and the University of Washington have cooked up a new technology they're call Vi-Fi (Vehicle Wi-Fi).  The system aims to provide users with on-the-go internet access more cheaply than existing cellular broadband systems.  And it uses some advanced technology to do it.

The key to Microsoft's new system is a steady signal.  In Wi-Fi networks, as you travel overland, each signal station (base station) only broadcasts so far, so you have to hop between stations.  During these transitions, known as "hard handoffs", the signal strength typically drops.  At best this makes car Wi-Fi unpleasant, and at worst it makes it unworkable.

Ratul Mahajan, a Microsoft researcher working on the project, explains, "Today's Wi-Fi handoff protocols are incredibly fragile in outdoor environments and mobile environments artificially limited to talking to only one access point, or only one base station at a time, even though there may be other base stations (in the area)."

The key to Microsoft's system is found in the last half of his comment -- the use of multiple base stations.  In the new system the station, which can send and receive signals from more than on base station, the strongest strength gets designated the "anchor" system, but other systems are also used as "auxiliary" systems.  A complex algorithm calculates the probability of a packet not reaching the main station.  If the probability is high enough, the auxiliary stations try to forward it to the main station.

Researchers with Microsoft, UW and Massachusetts believe they are the first to suggest such a solution, which may finally make vehicle Wi-Fi workable.  They ran a test deployment on Microsoft's campus in Washington and found the system eliminated nearly all the problems of network hopping.  This allowed for seamless connections with software applications and internet phone calls.

The research was presented this week in Seattle to the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communications.  Mr. Mahajan did deliver an important distinction --  he doesn't want drivers abusing the Wi-Fi in a way that might distract them.

The lead author on the research paper was Aruna Balasubramanian, a computer science graduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  Assisting her in the research were professors Brian Neil Levine and Arun Venkataramani of the University of Massachusetts, and John Zahorjan of the UW. 

Microsoft is planning a follow up test on a bigger scale on the area surrounding its campus.

With the future of municipal Wi-Fi networks recently take a turn for the better, the infrastructure for car Wi-Fi is starting to fall into place.  Now if Microsoft and its partners can continue to successfully improve upon their designs, internet may have found one more new home.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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