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The Internet, and other traditional networks, are vulnerable. Mesh networks are almost invulnerable. There are no choke points through which all traffic passes. Instead, information is passed from one device to the next until it reaches its destination.

Although originally designed to be a distributed network, as the Internet has become more commercialized, various choke points have formed; some are local, such as a reliance on Internet service providers (ISPs), while others are global, like the network of submarine cables that criss-cross the ocean.

If a local ISP goes down, it can affect a few thousand people, but when the submarine cables are damaged, 60 or 70% of a country’s traffic can be affected.

The Internet is not just at risk of accidental damage. During the events of the Arab Spring, governments cut protester’s access to the Internet.

Last week, Justin wrote about emerging technologies that are changing the world Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World Top 10 Emerging Technologies That Are Changing The World From agriculture to medicine to energy, advancements are being made every day. Learn a little bit about these 10 emerging technologies that could directly affect your life within the next few years. Read More , but I think he missed one – mesh networks.

What Is A Mesh Network?

Imagine that you, me and my editor Tina are in separate rooms of a large building. I want to send a message to your phone. In a traditional set up, my phone connects to a cell tower, the message is sent there, bounced around the phone company’s servers and then sent out to another cell tower and then to your phone.

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mesh

In a mesh network, things operate differently. My phone would directly broadcast the message using its own aerials. If you were in range, your phone would receive it instantly, no middleman necessary. If we weren’t directly in range of each other, but Tina was in range of both of us, the message would pass through Tina’s phone – without her properly receiving it – and be rebroadcast to you.

The more devices or nodes in a mesh network, the stronger it becomes. If there were one hundred other people in the building, wherever you and I were, our phones would have countless routes through which they could send messages. If Tina’s phone ran out of battery, the message would automatically be routed through a different series of nodes to reach you.

While this is a simple explanation of a mesh network, it nicely encompasses the general principles. As more and more devices get sold that are capable of serving as nodes in a mesh network – every phone, tablet, computer, toaster or bathroom scale 5 Cool Wireless Devices You've Probably Never Heard Of Before 5 Cool Wireless Devices You've Probably Never Heard Of Before Read More with Wi-Fi capability – the potential for their use increases.

Particularly in cities, the possibility of a seamless, auto-healing mesh network is increasingly a reality. Developers are already creating apps to leverage that potential.

The Future of Communication – Messaging With FireChat

FireChat is somewhat similar to the Serval Mesh app that Angela wrote about How To Use Serval Mesh To Chat To Other Mobile Phones Without A Phone Network [Android 2.2+] How To Use Serval Mesh To Chat To Other Mobile Phones Without A Phone Network [Android 2.2+] For those of us living in first world cities, it's hard to imagine how we would get on if we couldn't communicate easily with our mobile phones. Yes, some of us might recall the days... Read More . Developed by Open Garden – who’s slogan is “You are the Internet” – FireChat is a regular messaging app for when you only have a mobile signal.

Your messages are sent using a traditional network architecture. As soon as you lose the mobile signal though, FireChat starts to use a mesh network instead. Any other devices running FireChat within approximately 200 feet will relay your messages.

firechat

FireChat is already being used in the real world. During the Internet outages in Iraq earlier this year, residents downloaded FireChat 30,000 times.

In the run up to Burning Man this year, the app had one of its biggest updates. Burners were able to use FireChat to keep in contact with their friends. The middle of the desert has never been a good place for a phone signal, and FireChat solved a part of that problem.

FireChat promises to shake up the future of communication. Not only can it help protesters communicate when the government blocks Internet access, but it can also be of use in far more scenarios.

If a natural disaster strikes a major city, rescuers, and everyone else, would be able to communicate using mesh networks rather than rely on the over-stressed and damaged traditional infrastructure. Subways would no longer be communication black spots, other nodes would relay your message back to the surface and beyond.

Global Principles – Finding Lost Items With Tile

Implementations like FireChat’s is only one way that mesh networks stand to change the world. The general principles underlying mesh networking – distributed nodes communicating with each other – are already influencing the development of other technologies.

Tile is a small, square device that you can attach to things you don’t want to lose – like your keys, laptop or camera. If you lose whatever you’ve attached Tile to, you can use the smartphone app to locate it. Tile uses bluetooth, so your phone will only be able to find anything within 200 feet; not much use if you left your keys in a coffee shop down the street!

tileapp

If, however, you use the Tile app to declare the item lost, any other smartphone with the app installed will begin passively looking for it. If someone else walks by the coffee shop, their phone will detect your lost key’s Tile and pass their location on to you, without the other person being aware that anything happened.

While Tile is not strictly a mesh network, it uses the same principles and blends them with a regular network. It highlights how creative application of the ideas that underly mesh networks can be of use right now, and not just in the future.

Mesh Networks Are The Future

The traditional network architecture of the Internet is fraught with problems: it’s vulnerable to deliberate disruption and accidental damage, there is a risk of corporations wielding too much power What Is Net Neutrality & Why Should I Care? What Is Net Neutrality & Why Should I Care? A significant number see Net Neutrality as essential to the survival of the Internet. In this article, we're going to look at why Net Neutrality matters, and why we should fight to protect it. Read More , and it is easy to track and spy on users Your Interest in Privacy Will Ensure You're Targeted By The NSA Your Interest in Privacy Will Ensure You're Targeted By The NSA Read More .

Mesh networks overcome many of these problems. While they do not currently allow for a network as broad as the Internet, for many purposes they can excel, and we are likely to see more technology using them in the future.

Image Credits: Wikipedia, FireChat, Tile.

  1. Devika Girish
    March 26, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Great post, Harry. Mesh Networks are a great solution to the primary limitation posed by Bluetooth Smart -Range Limitation. In fact, though beacons have definitely played a crucial role in pushing the IoT barrier, most product or solution designers will agree that they have often found the “maximum range” offered by a beacon to be just not enough. Especially when it comes to comes to use cases such as situations in which your beacons are required to broadcast over a large space such as a parking lot, or in which you want to collect temperature data wirelessly from the most distant points in your office block. In fact Bluetooth SIG is already working on making Mesh Network an extension of Bluetooth Smart by 2016. We have discussed on how mesh networks can help beacons extend their range and 2 beacons that work on this topology here:
    http://blog.mobstac.com/2015/03/how-mesh-networks-can-help-solve-beacon-challenges/

  2. dragonmouth
    February 26, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Can the unintentional consequence of tagging items with Tile be the ability to track the people carrying the tagged items?

  3. Leif
    October 18, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Hi Harry. If you are really into meshnets as by this article, you very much are. You might want to check out a project we just launched on ingieGoGo:
    igg.me/at/ivi

  4. uday krk
    October 8, 2014 at 8:00 am

    That was a nice article harry. Can you tell me, how the operation will go.. if a person outside the mesh network(not a member of mesh network) sends a message to single/multiple member(s) of Mesh network.

  5. Dale
    September 26, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    For a neat forecast of practical mesh networking, besides the real world suggestions by the ones raised by the other commenters, read Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's end. Unfortunately, we need a protocol (or broad acceptance of promiscuously using an existing one) to directly connect all of these devices, rather than depending on switches, towers, and wireless routers.

    • Harry
      October 2, 2014 at 8:33 am

      Hey Dale, thanks for the recommendation, I'll check it out! Apps like FireChat are striving for that. What it really needs is for Apple or Google to implement it on all devices. If the default method of messaging was mesh followed by a fall back of a traditional network, I think there'd be rapid acceptance (and some very very unhappy cell companies).

    • Harry
      October 2, 2014 at 8:36 am

      Hey guys! FireChat is once again making news this week in the Hong Kong protests: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/what-is-firechat-the-internetfree-messaging-app-thats-sweeping-the-world-9763070.html

      More than 100k downloads in Hong Kong in 24 hours. The area around the protests is now going to have a full mesh network. If people keep using FireChat after the protests conclude, we could see the first city with broad uptake of mesh communications.

  6. Clyde
    September 26, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Mesh networks are actually the past, as they have been deployed even over submarine networks since 2008.

    • Harry
      October 2, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Hey Clyde, many things of the future are more improved versions of things of the past. The real change in how mesh networks now is the number and location of available devices. In 2008 there was no where near the saturation of devices capable of being used in a mesh network. Now a large city like New York has the infrastructure created. The amount of places where you are genuinely far enough away that your device couldn't reach at least one other node is tiny!

  7. James B
    September 26, 2014 at 11:08 am

    They're also exceedingly slow, thanks to the overhead of having to jump through all those nodes and figure out the topology. Tor is a great example of a mesh network (and ridiculously slow). They may have their uses (like during emergencies and network outage), but they're certainly not going to replace traditional networks anytime soon, since the internet would grind to a halt.

    I think Tile is better defined as having p2p features, rather than running on any kind of mesh principles.

    • Harry
      October 2, 2014 at 8:26 am

      I don't think they'll ever fully replace traditional networks to be honest. But low bandwidth communication stuff is totally achievable. The benefits of not going through a middleman (other than other nodes, and predicting which nodes something will pass through is a challenge) to security are huge, but even more so, the benefits to not needing signal. Emergencies and protests are the obvious ones, but the city I live in has enough poor signal areas that having a mesh network that jumps a message to a good signal area where it'd get relayed on to the traditional network would be awesome.

  8. Guy M
    September 26, 2014 at 12:23 am

    Excellent article Harry. I love the idea of FireChat and may need to bring that up at work as part of our Disaster Recovery Program.

    Also, I didn't know that Tile could do that. I've read about Tile several times but must have missed that point. To me that's a huge selling point. I'm considering Tile seriously now.

    • Harry G
      September 26, 2014 at 1:00 am

      Thanks Guy. Yeah FireChat comes into its own in those sort of situations. Modern phones have so many aerials built in that it's ludicrous for them not to be able to communicate directly in an emergency situation.

      I agree with you on Tile too. My one concern is that if not enough people adopt it, the feature won't be much use. The flip side of that is, if, out of concern for people not adopting it, I don't adopt it then I can't expect others to!

  9. Grant
    September 25, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    Mesh networks of several types have been around for many years, so you could say they're here now. I first installed LAN mesh in 2008, and it was cheap and simple even that long ago. And your example of Fire Chat is good as well. What's happening now is that they are getting bigger, and using other protocols besides IP. Definitely an awesome principle.

    • Harry G
      September 25, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      I agree! The foundations have been around for years but it's only now that devices—mainly smartphones—are really available for people to capatalise on them. A LAN mesh is interesting and obviously has some benefits over a regular network, but the practical applications pale compared to a self healing mesh of every smartphone around!

      Personally, I take immense pleasure in seeing what people developed 10 or 15 years ago with great forethought finally coming into its own.

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