Dug Campbell

Never Out Of Signal: The Rise Of Mesh Networks

As we become increasingly dependent on internet access, there’s still a big problem that needs to be solved with the advance of the internet of things. We’re going to need this internet connectivity for all these great ideas to take root and advance.

Within existing infrastructure, WiFi is now pretty much commonplace. But as soon as you head out onto the streets, even if you’re wealthy or desperate enough to have agreed to pay for half-solutions to the problem, you can never have full confidence that an existing WiFi signal will be good enough to guarantee you the flexibility that’s needed to carry out all of the things that you want to do whilst you’re on the go.

The world of mesh networking however presents us with one solution. Instead of relying on the traditional network in which access is for the most part controlled by large mobile telcos, each individual’s mobile phone (for example) now acts as a router that talks to all of the others around it. This creates a network that can support internet connectivity even when there is no public internet connection.

Another way to think about it is that the standard internet connectivity model uses a star topology. If you want to send a file from your laptop to another computer, you have to send it via a central router. But with a mesh topology, every node can create to every other node around it.

The potential of a system of decentralised connectivity that can deal with the many problems of poor connectivity – perhaps in a location that lacks the necessary infrastructure as a result of a remote location, an oppressive government or the aftermath of natural disaster or war – could prove to be transformative. Even down to the simple usefulness found in helping festival-goers get past an overwhelmed phone network that prevents them texting their lost friends, the value is clear.

This technology (Apple called this ‘Multipeer Connectivity‘) was included with iOS7. You probably heard about the rapid ascent of Open Garden’s Firechat app which exploded in popularity upon being used by pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. Of course, it comes with the usual caveat in that circumstance. It is not secure from surveillance in any way a pretty significant weakness when you’re a protester that’s challenging an oppressive regime I think you’d agree (although this is currently being worked on by the company, I believe).

However, the point here is that the system doesn’t require centralised infrastructure. Allowing people to communicate without requiring internet access is a leap forward on many fronts. And of course the Firechat app still has value for those who are railing against centralised censorship – you can still get the message distributed, provided you’re willing to adopt the “I’m Spartacus” defence. And of course, you could always look at integrating mesh networks with Maidsafe.

There’s an interesting company called Veniam that have come out with a hugely ambitious vision.  Given the fact that people move around yet still need to effortlessly maintain connectivity in the course of their travels, they plan to connect the ‘internet of moving things’ by turning vehicles into WiFi hotspots  And it’s more than simply a big idea – they’ve already managed to equip more than 600 vehicles in Porto (including commuter buses) to show the potential of a smart city in action.

The really fascinating time will come I suspect when these systems are also collecting vast amounts of data about the current status of urban settings as they become continually denser. The rubbish bin that notifies a passing rubbish truck when it’s nearly full provides one example. In many ways this starts to bring the reality of the Trade Net closer, where self-driving cars (using Bitcoin microtransactions, of course) are negotiating in milliseconds to gain right of way on the roads, clearing traffic jams instantly. Or drones are delivering your requirements on demand.

There are significant issues to consider once we overlay our towns and cities with such coverage  (personal data, security and surveillance immediately jump to mind) which is why it’s so important I belive that we start to think about these issues very seriously now. But provided we find a way to tackle such issues (which we face in any event), the potential benefits from mesh networks could be hugely valuable. After all, anything that facilitates communication in a disaster zone must have a very significant contribution to make in the future.



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