How Mesh Networks Could Change The Way We Access The Internet


Can Peer-to-Peer Apps Solve The Net Neutrality Debate?

Regulating internet access—and whether or not we should even do so—is currently a hot topic of widespread debate, with the issue of net neutrality in the muddy center. As the deadline for public comment reaches a close on July 15th, everyone from the FCC, to the government, to internet carriers, seems to be weighing in on the issue. But what if the best defense for freedom of the internet doesn't involve a policy change but a technical one? New apps are gaining national attention, not necessarily for the apps themselves, but for their underlying technology: mesh networks.

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Mesh Networks And The Apps That Use Them

In our standard internet, data travels through internet providers, which sends information back and forth across the network—usually intercepted along the way by various checkpoints, including other routers and servers. Mesh networks skip the middleman and instead, connect your device to other devices in your network, where they all rely on each other rather than on a single, centralized hub. This means, if enough people are connected to a mesh network, they can send and receive data without an actual WiFi connection. Open Garden is a small startup that's dedicated to creating these kinds of peer-to-peer connections through apps. Most noteworthy of these, Firechat, is a messaging app that uses Apple's multi-peer connectivity setting to connect you with people who are in close proximity—all without a WiFi signal. Marketed for camping trips and music festivals, Firechat hopes to bring mesh networks into the mainstream. "Mesh networking is like this unicorn," Christophe Daligault, of Open Garden and Firechat, told, “We’ve been talking about it for 20 years.[...]But it hasn’t really taken off in a big way anywhere."

What Can Mesh Networks Do For You?

Daligault may be right about the B-list celebrity status of mesh networks, but their potential benefits are far from insignificant. Think about the current paranoia (warranted or not) regarding digital privacy, big data mining, and government surveillance. The structure of mesh networks allows little room for your internet activity to gain unwanted attention. To even find out your identity, hackers and snoops would have to actually be a part of the network themselves. Mesh Networks Compared To Traditional Beyond a means to 'stick it to the man', these off-the-grid networks show significant potential for social impact. In recent years, mesh networks have surfaced, not just as a way to avoid inflated ISP rates or NSA attention, but also as a life vest for disaster-stricken communities. As a response to Haiti’s devastated communications infrastructure after the 2010 earthquake, the Serval project was launched to build networks that can endure this kind of damage. Their strategy? A wireless network that solely relies on the connection of mobile devices can be used as a tool for finding emergency relief in the wake of disaster.

Risks Of Peer-To-Peer Connections

But are mesh networks really the sole savior of this internet dilemma? Peer-to-peer connections, while optimistic and innovative, aren't without risk. Any stranger looking to join your network can do so by simply being within range of your device. Conversely, long-range capabilities of mesh networks are yet to be determined. Firechat users must be within 30 feet of each other to connect, while Apple doesn't even mention how close devices need to be in order to communicate. For AT&T users, range requirements are far from their biggest problem. AT&T blocked Open Garden's Android app from the Google Play store, completely restricting it to their customers—and understandably so; internet providers aren't in the business of promoting mesh networks, especially when a lot of questions regarding peer-to-peer connections remain unanswered. For instance, what are their effects on battery life? How much bandwidth can they carry? Since mesh networks are currently a niche-alternative for the small percentage that know of its existence, these off-the-grid connections are largely unregulated.

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The Wild, Wild Internet

Mesh networks have emerged as a knee-jerk response to increasingly restricted internet access. But a one-size-fits-all solution seems like a hasty fix for something as vast and as crucial as The Internet. The concept of peer-to-peer connections, however, is undeniably innovative and its promises of digital privacy and crowd-sourced connectivity seems to fit our current digital landscape. One thing is for certain: the internet is still a relatively untamed frontier, simply because it refuses to stop growing. Over 700 million iOS devices were sold by last October, and as our online connections expand in ways we've never accounted for, the balance between online freedom and sensible regulation becomes an increasingly blurry line.
Date of original publication:
Updated on: November 10, 2015

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