WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Connectivity is ubiquitous, so we’re told, but today all these different communications channels are siloed and isolated, over the next decade, or two, devices will be able to hop between them all at will.
Mesh networks, which ironically are the very same sorts of networks that power many of the largest mobile networks in the world by using network routing techniques that were originally designed by the military, have long promised to release us all from the shackles of those same said, expensive providers that seem quite content with the status quo of charging us all what often seems to be extortionate amounts of money for pitiful amounts of bandwidth and a lousy, spotty service. And if you live in rural areas? Well, be thankful if you get GPRS or Edge for your $70 per month.
Today most Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) offer something called “All or nothing” networks, in other words you either have it or you don’t, and for those of us who work all day and sleep all night this means that most of the time these networks are underutilised, or, again, in most cases, not being used at all.
On the other hand though if we were all using Mesh Networks we could “pass on” that unused bandwidth, using a technique called “Client Meshing,” that lets peer to peer networks form between among client devices, to our neighbours and people in the surrounding area for them to use, and, in what sounds like a win win, as an added bonus as more users join the network they improve network coverage and increase network throughput.
At a more practical level though, while these sorts of mesh networks today rely on, mainly, domestic installations, tomorrow we could see them become much more common thanks to the energy companies race to embrace and roll out Smart Grids, something I wrote about the other day. Back in the cities, the proliferation of WiFi hotspots and other “small cell” networks, could help them spread like wild fire, and all that’s without mentioning the advent of connected and, or, self-driving cars that, in some cases, will generate their own mesh networks as they travel around the city. Now, all of a sudden who needs LTE in a city?
Moving another step forwards, now imagine being able to use your “connected wearables,” such as the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear, without having to pay for an additional LTE Sim card and hopefully you start getting a bit of an idea of the techs upside.
Back to today though there are several mesh network apps in the wild and FireChat, a peer to peer smartphone app that works without needing internet access and doesn’t use cellular data, is one of the most popular. Sounds nice doesn’t it, not being beholden to an ISP or a telco, and in their case they’ve even managed to keep people in touch with each other when natural disasters and deliberate political interference with the internet have knocked people offline.
Guifi.net is another mesh networking app that’s trying to bring the tech to a wider audience and so far they’ve help connect over 32,000 households across three continents, letting everyone share a wide area network and ISP connections, using nothing more than a commercially available hardware router, for free. And the Brooklyn Mesh is another one and so the list goes on…
However, even though the router hardware can cost as little as $30 per household many of these projects have fallen by the wayside over the years because the model of free access is a major inhibitor, and as a result most users don’t have any monetary incentive to share their bandwidth which, in some cases, is paid for, but now, thanks to yet another edgy technology, Blockchain, that could all be about to change for the better.
“If you have line of sight to another member or they are very close by you can ask them if it’s okay to share their internet,” says a representative from the Brooklyn Mesh, adding “we encourage people to share or make deals with their neighbours.”
That’s all very well and good but where’s the incentive to share, that is other than just being a good Samaritan – which let’s face it will only get you so far. Micropayments have offered one solution to the payments problem for the past number of years but they’re not always easy to use, understand or facilitate, but now there are a handful of Bitcoin cryptocurrency powered networks, such as BitMesh, BEWP and BitcoinWifi to name but a few cropping up, all of which try to give entrepreneurial individuals an incentive mechanism that will encourage them to set up WiFi hotspots that accept Bitcoin in return for WiFi.
“Bitcoin is not only an ideal technology,” says Andrew Donley, CEO of BitMesh, “it’s essential for BitMesh to function [and grow]. The availability of micropayment channels affords connected peers to buy and sell internet access at a granular level in a secure, trust-less manner without the need for third party escrow.”
Meanwhile another entrepreneur Andreas Antonopoulos, a famed Bitcoin speaker and author of two of the bestselling books on the subject, has started a company called Wifiportal21.
“It’s a fun proof of concept,” he says, “and the peer to peer nature of the mesh networking concept requires a peer to peer payment system. If not bitcoin, perhaps something equivalent, but for now only bitcoin is widely enough adopted to even come close, and a paid mesh networking platform needs concentrated adoption of the payment mechanism, for example, Bitcoin. As a result it can be geographically dependent and that makes it very difficult to bootstrap, and you need users who have Bitcoin and access points that offer services for Bitcoin, both in the same area, and outside of a very few areas there is no such concentration.”
So, while it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to get rid of our ISP and telco shackles anytime soon, with some experts saying any meaningful shift is at least a decade away, the technology we need to decentralise and disintermediate today’s providers is, arguably, already here. Now all we need is the right business model, deployment and adoption strategy, however, as we keep rolling out and creating millions more small cell networks on everything from cars and power lines to buildings and cities, and plough billions into turning everything “smart” one day today’s giants could easily be tomorrow’s dinosaurs. Look out for the asteroid guys, it’s just passed the edge of our solar system and it’s headed your way. Everyone whisper “Argh!”