Mesh networks: rethinking the internet

An interesting article in The New York Times entitled “U.S. Promotes Network to Foil Digital Spying revives and updates the old topic of mesh networks.

Mesh networking, whereby nodes cooperate in the distribution of data in a network, has been talked about for many years, typically as a response to interconnection problems in areas without internet, typically where conventional access suppliers don’t have much incentive to provide a service. Networks such as, from the Spanish region of Catalonia, which started in 2004, has used its more than 20,000 operational nodes to become a world-class community network.

But mesh networking is now being given a new lease of life. As The New York Times article notes, mesh networking is a way of providing connectivity through independent networks by connecting local nodes with each other, thus creating information exchange routes that can allow, for example, dissidents in dictatorial regimes to organize themselves by effectively bypassing the conventional internet, which will always be subject to monitoring and control in such countries.

The pilot projects being carried out by the US Department of State seems to be aimed at developing and managing these types of networks for uses that range from activism in areas subject to government control to the rapid deployment of the internet in poverty stricken areas or where natural disasters have taken place. This development also needs to be seen in light of the US government’s funding of the Twitter-type ZunZuneo network rolled out in Cuba recently: there is talk of providing a mesh-type networking service to Cuba.

At the same time, there is a paradox here. Mesh networks can also be seen as a response to democratically elected government spying in the post-Snowden era: in other words, a way of creating communication systems in which control, monitoring and surveillance is virtually impossible because of the absence of the required centralized interconnection points. We live in a time when the rules of democracy are being redefined to the point where we no longer need to live under an authoritarian regime to see the potential benefits of a network free of government monitoring.

The potential of mesh networking has been boosted by the growing spread of broadband and increased and cheaper computing capacity. A home-based router now has powerful processors, huge memory, and significant broadband emission capability; the possibility of integrating these routers-cum micro computers into parts of interconnected networks is ever-more real.

The cost of creating additional infrastructure to build line of sight propagation of antennae to lengthen signals, or even to build servers through Raspberry Pi computers has fallen significantly.

These would be networks resistant to the eventual collapse of conventional communications supplied by telephone operators, and that could provide interconnection over wide areas simply be jumping from node to node. Can we conceive of a network within a certain area where people who are prepared to spend 30 euros on a microcomputer and low-cost storage units linked to their routers, communicating with each other without having to use a telecoms company’s nodes? This would be very much in line with the original spirit of the internet as a network of networks, raising the possibility of new connectivity scenarios with some very interesting repercussions.

(En español, aquí)