How to Stay Connected Anywhere

Sonnet is a tool for staying connected with others, even when cellular coverage, satellites, and internet access are nonexistent

This is a spotlight on Sonnet, a finalist in our WINS Off-the-Grid Networks challenge. Learn more about the WINS competition here.

During his time hiking and spelunking in the wilderness, Boken Lin — an entrepreneur, technologist, and the founder and CEO of Boston-based Sonnet Labs — had an idea. What if there were a way to stay connected with fellow adventurers, even when off the grid and far from routers and cellular coverage?

Since, Lin’s nascent idea has evolved into an ambitious mission: “To create the world’s most advanced, most adaptable, long-range wireless mesh network technology,” he says. It’s a mission he shares with Dr. Junmin Guo, Sonnet Labs’ CTO and a fellow adventurer.

Why the bold mission? “Communication is crucial to everything we do — and we have become too dependent on a centralized way to stay in touch with family and friends,” Lin explains of the current internet ecosystem. As a result, rural areas, or regions hit by natural disasters, are often left offline. “When the centralized way of communicating is no longer available, we feel lost. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve.”

It’s the same problem that the National Science Foundation and Mozilla-led WINS Challenge is trying to solve. And Sonnet Lab’s eponymous creation, Sonnet, is a finalist for a WINS $400,000 grand prize. Sonnet is a small wireless tool that allows users to swap text messages, voice recordings, images, and GPS locations using their devices, all without cellular coverage, satellite, or internet access.

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Sonnet uses low-cost, off-the-shelf hardware, like a Wi-Fi module and LoRa transceiver. It’s all packaged in a waterproof case for durability. A Sonnet prototype weighs less than one pound.

What about the software? “From the software perspective, we’re trying not to reinvent the wheel,” Lin says. “There’s a phenomenal amount of technology already created for the purpose of connecting people.” So Lin and his team developed the Sonnet Mesh Protocol, which combines LoRa modulation technology with existing IEEE and IETF standards. The result: a low-power, long-range mesh networking protocol. From here, users can connect using devices like smartphones and laptops from up to three miles away. And due to their multiple nodes, Sonnet networks don’t have a single point of failure.

Sonnet is simple to use, too: “The current version of the Sonnet prototype can form, join, and maintain mesh networks without any configuration from the users,” reads Sonnet Lab’s WINS application.

As the project has evolved, Lin has seen new use cases emerge beyond his initial idea to connect pathfinders. After Sonnet Labs launched its Kickstarter page, they received inbound requests from all kinds of people: miners, foresters, and sailors all expressed interest. So have individuals in Puerto Rico, in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes. Emergency workers are obvious users, too.

“We first imagined the use case for ourselves, but we’ve seen how powerful mesh networking technology can be,” Lin says. “Sonnet can really be used in any situation where your phone is not able to connect to cellular power.”