Net Neutrality: What about mesh networks?

Have you ever thought about how we in the United States connect to the Internet? We rely on rely on routers — devices that provide a dedicated source, often to one recipient — a person, household, or company. Telecoms and router makers (Cisco, Netgear) make lots of money selling WiFi routers. Now the telecoms stand to make even more money if the FCC changes the rules to allow them to charge more money for faster and uninterrupted Internet and mobile service. (See below). Are device makers — those who make routers — complicit in the possibility of upending net neutrality as well?

What about mesh technology?

Mesh technology doesn’t receive data from a central access point such as router. Instead, it picks it up through any wired device. It does so through pulses and bursts rather than a single stream. These continued pulses and bursts, already broken, make it hard for a signal to weaken or breakdown.

In a mesh network every device is a recipient and provider at the same time. Mesh does not rely on a single or dedicated source to connect to the Internet, but, rather multiple ones. Since the device is constantly renewing, it doesn’t require you, the user, to reset anything. That would benefit hundreds of millions of users in places beset with poor infrastructure and have no access to phone lines or fiber optic cables; where architecture interrupts radio waves such as a subway tunnel; where natural disasters cut off both; or where there is a crowd. Mesh technology does not slow down when there is an increase in the number of users or devices being used. Mesh has been used in Haiti after that country’s devastating earthquake in 2010. A group of Egyptians launched the Open Mesh Project in 2011 after their government shut off the Internet during the Tahrir Square protests. In Red Hook, Brooklyn – a neighborhood hit hard during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – mesh networks are keeping a community, largely isolated from subways and vulnerable to floods, connected.

Why is this significant?

Digital technology, Internet and mobile services involve the ability to access it. Wireless networks and broadband are one part of how and why tech startups have succeed. Investing in that infrastructure is indispensable. Just as railroads and the Inter-State Highway system added value to the United States economy in the 20th century, so too is the ability to connect to a digital network – continuously and without interruption. Mesh technology should be something that we should be thinking about more.

As our access to the open Internet hangs in the balance, I wonder if device makers are complicit in putting net neutrality at risk? Why, after all, don’t we seek out mesh technology and mesh networks more?

That’s the end of my thought — read on for more about net neutrality and what it means:

Background on net neutrality

Once upon a time the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made sure that telecom companies or broadband providers wouldn’t block or slowdown the Internet, foremost and mobile networks, secondly for monetary gain. They oversaw what is called “net neutrality” or the “open Internet.”

In January 2014, a U.S. court decided that the FCC didn’t have the power to enforce “net neutrality.” The FCC had defined telecoms and broadband carriers as “information services.” An “information service,” the telecoms argue, aren’t subject to the FCC’s rigorous oversight that essentially impedes their ability to charge higher prices for those who want faster Internet or those who require the use of lots of data. That includes companies — startups — like Etsy, Hulu, Netflix, and Zynga — e-commerce, video streaming, and gaming companies.

Hence, in May the FCC introduced new rules to govern the Internet and mobile networks. These rules gave telecoms the green light to charge individuals who want fast internet more, while those who are not willing to pay would be stuck with slow and, perhaps, interrupted service (which is awful to begin with; the United Statesranks 35th in terms of service worldwide.) Yes, if that sounds like mafia tactics, it is (We have something you want, but you have to pay for it.)

Last night the FCC closed off comments about its new rules. Today it holds a hearing about whether to extend its rules to mobile networks. The FCC plans to announce its decision before the end of the year. A lot is at stake on this decision. The ACLU has a good FAQs on the matter. Per Union Square Ventures partner blogger Fred Wilson notes, the CEO of Etsy, Chad Dickerson, points out what it will mean for startups — and U.S. business.

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