In the past couple months we have had a lot of fun building out Fognet: a few more talented creators have joined the team, some interesting collaborations have emerged, and the hardware and software that will make up Fognet is evolving. However, reading about technology is boring without real-life examples! So we will save the technical updates until we we have another concrete demo to show. This post will focus more on the (equally important) conceptual progress and design decisions we have made recently.
We believe strongly in human-centered design principles, and work to create systems that are both practical and delightful. As designers and developers, we can come up with a million ideas of how to change the world with technology. But until we actually understand the real human needs of the people who will benefit from Fognet, we cannot predict every possible use case. In order to be economically sustainable in a variety of contexts, the Fognet protocol needs to be as versatile and flexible as possible. Adaptability to a wide variety of situations will be a core feature of Fognet moving forward. We will show what we mean by this by explaining how Fognet will operate in various possible scenarios:
An isolated village in a low-resource area
Communities in the developing world have the most to gain from information and communications technologies. The internet can facilitate a variety of essential activities in emerging economies, from financial inclusion to education, healthcare, and employment. A 2016 Pew Research study found that “the most avid social network users are found in regions with lower internet rates,” because the ability to share data freely on the internet can have such a profound effect in these communities. I have spent over a year in Nepal, and seen some of the creative uses that people find for communications technology. In the village of TangTing near Pokhara city, people regularly climb to the top of the hill for cell service… just to send their friend in another village a “missed call”, because it doesn't cost anything! Groups of friends sometimes set up a sort of “missed call morse code” system with each other, where one missed call means “lets meet today”, two missed calls means “wait until tomorrow”, etc. Although it seems like a lot of effort just to send a single bit of data, it is completely free, and much easier than trekking six hours to the next village!
Seeing how useful it can be to pass information freely has made me realize that feeless data transfer needs to be a core component of Fognet. By default, traffic within a local Fognet will be completely free. As well as downloading data from the mesh, Fognet nodes will actively contribute bandwidth by passing along other people’s messages. You might be thinking: what about a hacker who writes their own Fognet client that only downloads data and does not contribute to the mesh? This is a real concern, that does not have a single solution for every possible scenario. In a large-scale urban Fognet deployment, network traffic can be fairly balanced through IOTA micro-payments, as we have written about in our previous posts. But in a village context like TangTing where everyone knows each other, this situation is much easier to handle through a community-maintained blacklist of spammers than by requiring everyone to buy IOTA tokens.
In an area where villages use Fognet for local communication, an entrepreneur could design a system to connect these villages to a nearby city with internet infrastructure, perhaps by setting up a chain of solar-powered wireless range extenders that bounce data from hilltop to hilltop. The Fognet “border router” will provide tools for this entrepreneur to serve global internet traffic onto the local mesh, in exchange for IOTA tokens (and allow them to get a return on their infrastructure investment). The Fognet protocol will offer no restrictions on this exchange; any price can be charged, or web requests can even be served for free (in the case of a grant-funded humanitarian project for example). A local Fognet can support any number of border routers, and regular nodes within the mesh will automatically choose who to pay for outside web content based on price and bandwidth. Free market competition to provide faster and cheaper solutions for serving internet data onto a local Fognet will empower innovators to experiment and come up with optimal ways of transferring data that are relevant for the local context. (TV white space broadband? Long-range laser communication? Carrier pigeons? LiFi?) Interoperability between geographically dispersed Fognets will allow a worldwide “mesh of meshes” to form, enabling global communication that is economically sustainable for all parties involved.
A city hit by a natural disaster
Disaster readiness is an obvious use case for Fognet, because decentralized networks can be more resilient than central service providers in the case of a massive power outage. The most important feature of a disaster-ready mesh network is a completely ad-hoc topology, meaning that there are no central points where traffic is routed, and no single point of failure. A Fognet mesh can form with as little as just two nodes directly passing data between each other. As long as a Fognet node is within range of a single other node, it can connect to the mesh and enable its owner to communicate with their neighborhood and organize disaster relief efforts. Fognet is also self-healing, so if nodes drop out for any reason, the network will reorganize to include all nodes within range into one cohesive mesh.
In a situation where a natural disaster takes out all the digital communication in an area, Fognet nodes could be distributed by local authorities or disaster relief personnel to affected neighborhoods. In this case the authorities might need the ability to pre-configure controlled broadcast channels, in order to distribute important information to all members of a community. Although this sort of configuration is potentially more centralized than a completely trustless mesh network, it is an important use case that we are keeping in mind as we build out the Fognet platform.
The home of a crypto-geek in a random small town in Nebraska where no else has even heard of Fognet or IOTA
This is a tough one… how can someone participate in a decentralized mesh network if there is no one else around to mesh with? As we start to build out the various aspects of what will become the Fognet ecosystem, we have realized that it will be much more than just a mesh protocol. With Fognet, we want to enable anyone to participate easily in the most exciting aspects of the IOTA protocol: peer-to-peer micro-transactions and ownership over personal data. To this end, Fognet routers will have an option to connect directly to your home WiFi network, so that users can be a part of the Fognet ecosystem without actually being in a mesh network. This ecosystem will include applications like peer-to-peer encrypted messaging, distributed marketplaces, and a self-sovereign identity system.
Lets consider Alice, a web developer who creates engaging tutorials about cryptography, and wants a better way to distribute her content online. By connecting a Fognet router directly to the regular internet, Alice will be able to serve web content from her own home, and have the option to charge a fee (in IOTA) for anyone in the world to access this content. Alice’s online identity as an educator is no longer stored in a database controlled by a company, but in a small piece of hardware that she personally owns. She also keeps 100% of the profits from her tutorial sales. Direct peer-to-peer economic activity is the raison d’être of cryptocurrency in the first place, and at Fognet we are really excited about building pragmatic and user-friendly platforms to enable this.
An urban neighborhood resisting corporate control
This exciting scenario came about because of a collaboration with Seattle’s Fearless360. We are contributing to a project in which sensors and microprocessors will be placed in bricks around Seattle’s Central District, an area that has been economically subdued because of the repercussions of discriminatory property development practices. These microprocessors will play snippets of the oral history of this neighborhood, and also collect data about a variety of topics like water quality, traffic conditions, and climate change. Fognet nodes will funnel this data across a mesh to a local border router that will create Masked Message streams on the Tangle. Access to these stories of data will be securely controlled by the community in which they are collected, and serve to support neighborhood initiatives for positive growth.
The advent of big data analytics and artificial intelligence is leading to an era where “data is the new oil”. Historically, however, communities around the world have tended to suffer after the discovery of oil under their feet, not benefit from it. These days, all communities generate a plethora of data every single day, which is sequestered in corporate databases and analyzed for profit opportunities, rather than for positive community development. At Fognet we look forward turning this equation on its head, by leveraging all the features of the Tangle to enable neighborhoods to securely collect and analyze their own data, and create positive change in their community.
A city that believes in net neutrality
This is the use case that sparked the idea for Fognet: a regional alternative internet based on peer-to-peer data transfer through massive mesh deployments. In this scenario, every single pice of data is paid for through IOTA micro-transactions fairly distributed among all fognet routers that help pass the data to its final destination. Border routers earn IOTA by posting data to the tangle, and serving messages from other cities onto the mesh. In the future, Qubic-enabled border routers will provide decentralized services like DNS, application hosting, data processing, or local snapshot synchronization.
The feedback we have received from a range of people and organizations has made us realize that a separate internet is not the only thing we should be focusing on. Our priority is to enable networks to thrive on the edges of the main global internet, where higher costs and other challenges make it difficult for telecom infrastructure to reach. We are also interested in many other possible scenarios where localized mesh networks are superior to more centralized internet access. In our previous post, we outlined three design principles that we will be building into Fognet. The wildly varied requirements of these scenarios suggest three more general principles:
- Adaptable: Fognet routers need to be re-configurable to match the requirements of the context they are operating in. Fognet routers will have a variety of modes of operation, ranging from private community-owned data transfer to completely trustless and decentralized networks.
- Progressive: Fognet nodes will progressively enhance their feature set whenever possible, and have the ability to re-configure their settings on the fly. Multiple Fognet mesh networks can operate simultaneously in the same areas, and nodes will automatically seek out the cheapest (or free) route for sending and receiving data on the mesh. Modular software design will allow Fognet networks to evolve organically over time, and stay compatible a range of hardware iterations.
- Technology Agnostic: In order to be relevant in many different contexts, Fognet should not be limited to specific technologies or platforms. We will be experimenting with many protocols like OpenThread, BLE, WiFi, LoRa, WebRTC, MQTT, lasers, LED morse code from space, etc. and long-term we plan to release tools to let developers create their own custom Fognet clients. The only exception to this guideline is of course the IOTA protocol itself, because our path toward enabling true cooperation aligns with that of the Tangle, where consensus is achieved through altruistic work and the fair distribution of responsibilities among all participants.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end! Stay tuned for more concrete development updates! We have a lot of exciting things in the works.
As you can imagine, hardware development is very time-consuming. We are makers and geeks who love to code and don’t want to waste time thinking about things like investment and equity… thus we are asking you, the IOTA and mesh networking communities, for donations to help us create the first round of fully functional Fognet nodes. Your donations to the IOTA address below will be spent exclusively on hardware and development costs, and we will track expenditures on the Tangle to keep things transparent. Thank you!!