Motorola Mesh Node
Motorola Mesh Node

Mesh is widely seen by futurists as an evolution of the Internet as it is built today. Indeed, there are already product sets that are starting to utilise the concept of Mesh available now.

The idea behind Mesh is it frees people from fixed Internet points of presence whether that is your mobile data provider, a wireless hotspot, or a work network. The advantage is that the Mesh network you connect too is seriously resilient, the disadvantage is that you will need to share some of your bandwidth to participate.

Mesh was created to deal with situations where there was little internet penetration, think rural communities. By installing a single internet node within the community, then wireless mesh routers surrounding it, internet could be pushed out to a wider geographic area. Imagine that you are a farm on the edge of the Mesh. You can’t see the internet node, you can only see two neighbours who are running Mesh wireless routers. Your traffic goes from you, to them. They in turn, can only see two more Mesh wireless routers. Basically, the traffic hops across those nodes until it finds the physical Internet node, or nodes, for the community.

For a slightly more technical description Project Meshnet define it as:

“In the CJDNS net, a packet goes to a router and the router labels the packet with directions to a router which will be able to best handle it. That is, a router which is near by in physical space and has an address which is numerically close to the destination address of the packet. The directions which are added to the packet allow it to go through a number of routers without much handling, they just read the label and bounce the packet wherever the next bits in the label tell them to. Routers have a responsibility to ‘keep in touch’ with other routers that are numerically close to their address and also routers which are physically close to them.”

Mesh also appeared during the various Arab Uprisings in and around the Middle East. Where a country could switch of their Internet backbone, or heavily censor it at a Telco level, Mesh allowed for the bypass of traffic around those issues.

If a Telco shutdown, people who usually utilised that network simply used open Mesh to route around to one that was. Likewise, with close borders, Mesh allowed traffic to flow wirelessly around Government firewalls. As a tool for freedom of speech, Mesh is very powerful.

The Internet was originally designed to operate this way. To be highly resilient, an infrastructure that was easily accessible, self-healing, and not controlled by a single entity. What we have seen in the last ten years is the gradual move toward a highly controlled Internet that is not as resilient as it was, it is not as easily accessible as it was, is censored, and is controlled by single corporate and government entities. The rise of Mesh sees a return to a grassroots Internet service.

Advantages of Mesh are then:

  • Less network setup costs, because there is less physical wire.
  • The more nodes, the wider the coverage and the faster the service.
  • They work well in environments where physical wiring is difficult. Warehouses and stadiums for example.
  • They work well in areas where line of sight is an issue.
  • They are self-configuring. Add a node and the Mesh learns about it an integrates it seamlessly.
  • They are self-healing. If a node goes down, the Mesh routes around it.,

FreedomBox is an interesting project that seeks to push the Mesh as a democratic tool. In a New York Times article, Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can’t Find You, Freedom Box explains their purpose and how it will work:

“On Tuesday afternoon, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clintonspoke in Washington about the Internet and human liberty, a Columbia law professor in Manhattan, Eben Moglen, was putting together a shopping list to rebuild the Internet — this time, without governments and big companies able to watch every twitch of our fingers.

The list begins with “cheap, small, low-power plug servers,” Mr. Moglen said. “A small device the size of a cellphone charger, running on a low-power chip. You plug it into the wall and forget about it.”

Almost anyone could have one of these tiny servers, which are now produced for  limited purposes but could be adapted to a full range of Internet applications, he said.”

Across the world, academics are starting to build the next Internet, Mesh based. An excellent article, Fear of Repression Spurs Scholars and Activists to Build Alternate Internets, shows how this is working practically:

“One weekend each month, a small group of computer programmers gathers at a residence here to build a homemade Internet—named Project Byzantium—that could go online if parts of the current global Internet becomes blocked by a repressive government.

Using an approach called a “mesh network,” the system would set up an informal wireless network connecting users with other nearby computers, which in turn would pass along the signals. The mesh network could tie back into the Internet if one of the users found a way to plug into an unblocked route. The developers recently tested an early version of their software at George Washington University (though without the official involvement of campus officials).”

The downside of Mesh is that it takes quite a large critical mass before it truly starts to operate in the way that it is meant too. Too few nodes and it is pointless. Single internet access nodes and it is pointless. So we expect to see the rise of Mesh in larger cities first, as opposed to the smaller parts of the world.

The other area that will drive uptake of Mesh is smartphones. Each smartphone today comes with the ability to share and act as a wireless hotspot. With add-on software, already available, the Mesh is mobile. Thousands of Mesh nodes moving around cities communicating with each other in a dynamic way. While Mesh has been discussed for several years, with the advent and uptake of the smartphone, it is now rapidly expanding.

Links:

Connectify – Create a wireless hotspot with all available network connections aggregated

Open Mesh Project

Open – Mesh – Commercial Mesh Product

Activists creating decentralized mesh networks that can’t be blocked, filtered, or silenced

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