Meshed In or Locked Out? Questions for the Future of Connectivity

Mesh networking is on our minds, thanks to an incisive three-part series in the New York Business Journal this week. And while there’s no telling where the story of mesh is headed, one thing seems certain: this is a major parable for the Internet age in the making.

Mesh isn’t a new technology so much as a new way of harnessing bandwidth to create zones of free and wireless connectivity. Traditional wireless technology may allow us to feel untethered and light — as if we’d severed our connection to the Ethernet umbilical cable once and for all. But in the end, unless you rely on the sort of powerful microwave transmitters that cities invest in, traditional wireless technology never takes you far from an actual wired-in connection. This makes for lots of wires — millions of miles of wire and cable that have to be run through rock and soil and walls, and under seas — and it maximizes the chance any given user will have to subscribe to an ISP.

Not so with mesh. Mesh nodes are small radio transmitters that can cost as little as $20. They function much like wireless routers, and they run on the same WiFi standards. Programmed to interact with other nodes, they use dynamic routing to push information along the quickest path from node to node across a network.

But here’s the kicker: only one node in a mesh network has to be connected directly to the Internet via an ISP. Backhaul protocols eventually route information back to a wired-in or mobile access point, but the rest of the activity is wireless (and free). This not only makes for lighter, fluffier, less infrastructure-dependent systems — it makes for more resilient ones. In the traditional hub-and-spoke network model, there is no alternative if the hub goes down. But mesh networks are virtually “all spoke.” If one node goes down, data is simply pushed along to others.

Information skipping wirelessly through a sort of meshy cloud of connectivity, buoyed by as little as one ISP subscription.

Ask any tech savvy New Yorker about the power of mesh, and you’re likely to get a pointed, two-word answer: Hurricane Sandy. Sandy left the City physically flooded and ether-isolated, with major ISPs scrambling to make repairs and restore service to millions.

Meanwhile, two enterprising folks at the Red Hook Initiative used a mesh network to keep their neighborhood afloat, digitally speaking. (Red Hook was one of the City’s hardest-hit areas.)

But mesh doesn’t simply have potential in disaster zones. It represents a way to offer Internet connectivity in under-developed parts of the world and across difficult terrains. In Spain, grassroots Internet collectives have used mesh to spread access to rural areas that the country’s major ISPs had largely snubbed. The military is interested in battlefield uses. A growing number of US cities use mesh technology as a cheap way to link hotspots and create broad, public WiFi zones.

The question becomes: how will ISPs respond? Without a doubt, mesh networking represent a serious threat to their infrastructure-heavy, subscription-based business model. Which is why sharing bandwidth is a serious no-no under nearly every contract with nearly any US Internet service provider. The ISPs are, by their very nature, hardcore centralizers; it makes for an uneasy fit — and a built-in level of confrontation.

British Telecom is taking a different approach. Recently, it signed a deal with Rajant Technology, authorizing Rajant to deploy mobile mesh networks for its clients in 170 countries. Rajant CEO Bob Schena is himself a meshie who decided to think big, working toward a synergy between the ISPs, with all their capital and reach, and the decentralized, localized agility of mesh culture.

Reflecting on the just-do-it, DIY ethos of mesh-space innovators, Schena says, “I think some of them will succeed, some of them will create stuff that we’ll want to imitate…. I see it as a good thing. I see it as pushing the envelope of technology, pushing the envelope of customer experience and I hope that they continue to do what they’re trying to do.”

We’re not sure how this story plays out, but one thing seems certain: how ISPs confront the burgeoning potential of mesh will help shape the future of connectivity — offering important lessons on innovation, decentralization, timing, agility and infrastructure along the way. It’s a parable for our times in the making.

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