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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, 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.
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 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. 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 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!
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, and it is easy to track and spy on users.
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.