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TechTank

Three Ways Mesh Networks with Peer-to-Peer Connections Can Revolutionize Communications (without the Internet)

Joshua Bleiberg and Darrell M. West

Imagine a mobile application where you can share messages and photos with other users, but without an Internet connection.  These applications take advantage of mesh networking.  In a mesh network devices use Bluetooth peer-to-peer connections and WiFi networks to communicate “off the grid“.  Engineers originally developed the technology for the military.  Over the years small scale projects have found varying levels of success but few have broken through to the mainstream.  The newest version of iOS has incorporated mesh networks into its operating system, which allows developers to create applications that take advantage of this technology without having to reinvent the wheel.

Beyond messaging applications, mesh networks have the potential to make hard-wired Internet devices obsolete.  Mesh networking has a number of policy implications.  Here are a few that TechTank will look out for in the future.

Natural Disasters

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, mesh networking would allow users to communicate without access to the Internet or the power grid.  This would benefit first responders and other emergency workers who need to coordinate response efforts.  It would also allow family members to more easily communicate with each other.  Disasters have often overloaded cell networks rendering them functionally useless.  One of the great virtues of mesh networks is their ability to “self heal” by working around broken or overloaded pathways.  This capability would maximize the number of people who could communicate and minimize technical glitches.

Promoting Democracy

Mesh network supported applications could serve as a powerful tool for activists.  The Arab Spring and other social movements have served as a testament to the potency of social media.  Similar to Twitter, mesh networks allow for relatively frictionless mass communication.  Mesh network messaging services would prove even more difficult for governments to restrict than Twitter.  Authoritarian governments would have to confiscate devices from citizens to prevent the use of mesh networks.  Given the abundance of handsets throughout the world this is a nearly impossible task.

Expanding Connectivity Benefits to Rural Areas

Many rural areas lack access to high speed Internet.  After a modest investment mesh networks could connect numerous devices to a single high speed Internet connection.  Rural towns could pay for a single high-speed connection through a satellite to connect every device in the mesh network to the Internet.  This could serve as an elegant and inexpensive solution to the lack of Internet options in rural areas.

Mesh networks have the potential to trigger a second mobile technology revolution.   The number of devices supporting mesh networking will only continue to grow.  As this happens the value of each network will also rise.

Authors

J

Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution

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