The internet is weak, yet we keep ignoring this fact. So we see the same thing over and over again, whether it’s because of natural disasters like hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, wars like Syria and Bosnia, deliberate attempts by the government to shut down the internet (most recently in Egypt and Iran), or NSA surveillance.
After Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last month, several towns were cut off from humanitarian relief because delivering that aid depends on having a reliable communication network. In a country where over 90 percent of the population has access to mobile phones, the implementation of an emergency “mesh” network could have saved lives.
Compared to the “normal” internet — which is based on a few centralized access points or internet service providers (ISPs) — mesh networks have many benefits, from architectural to political. Yet they haven’t really taken off, even though they have been around for some time. I believe it’s time to reconsider their potential, and make mesh networking a reality. Not just because of its obvious benefits, but also because it provides an internet-native model for building community and governance.
But first, the basics: An ad hoc network infrastructure that can be set up by anyone, mesh networks wirelessly connect computers and devices directly to each other without passing through any central authority or centralized organization (like a phone company or an ISP). They can automatically reconfigure themselves according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth, storage, and so on; this is what makes them resistant to disaster and other interference. Dynamic connections between nodes enable packets to use multiple routes to travel through the network, which makes these networks more robust.
Compared to more centralized network architectures, the only way to shut down a mesh network is to shut down every single node in the network.
That’s the vital feature, and what makes it stronger in some ways than the regular internet.
But mesh networks aren’t just for political upheavals or natural disasters. Many have been installed as part of humanitarian programs, aimed at helping poor neighborhoods and underserved areas. For people who can’t afford to pay for an internet connection, or don’t have access to a proper communications infrastructure, mesh networks provide the basic infrastructure for connectivity.
Not only do mesh networks represent a cheap and efficient means for people to connect and communicate to a broader community, but they provide us with a choice for what kind of internet we want to have.
For these concerned about the erosion of online privacy and anonymity, mesh networking represents a way to preserve the confidentiality of online communications. Given the lack of a central regulating authority, it’s extremely difficult for anyone to assess the real identity of users connected to these networks. And because mesh networks are generally invisible to the internet, the only way to monitor mesh traffic is to be locally and directly connected to them.
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