LAS VEGAS--At CES, the start-up Peep Wireless Technology is trying to find partners to adopt its mobile phone mesh networking technology. It looks like the company has a long road ahead of it.
The mesh concept, which is not new, is that instead of phone voice or data moving as it does now, from low-powered mobile devices to high-powered, fixed towers, phones (and possibly other radio-equipped devices) would act as a miniature cell towers and repeaters on their own, handling data transmission for nearby devices. So if you're calling someone across the street, chances are you might be able to connect to their device directly, or maybe in just one or two "hops," using other people's devices as the towers and repeaters of your ad-hoc network.
Without cell towers, of course, there's no need for cellular carriers, no expensive private infrastructure to support, and no need for big recurring bills. A peer-to-peer mesh network is, in some cases, more robust than the traditional cellular infrastructure. It's certainly faster and cheaper to build. Mesh networks are in use today. Dust Networks, for example, provides technologies for sensors that are used in industrial and military applications for which there is no infrastructure. In a mesh network, the devices are the infrastructure.
On the other hand, building a mesh network of smartphones presents serious challenges that I don't think Peep has solved. The battery hit is a big one; many modern smartphones can barely make it through a day of use right now. Turning them into mini data repeaters would take even more power. And once a mesh network gets big, route-finding for data packets becomes a nontrivial computational task, and that introduces delay or lag into communications. Security, at least, should not be a big issue, since Peep's data is broken up and AES-encrypted end-to-end.
But the real challenge is getting the chiefs of the smartphone universe--the carriers--to play ball and invest in this technology. Peep President Scott Redmond is here at CES meeting with the carriers, he says.
I hope those meetings go better than his talk with me did.
I found it hard to get a grip on what kind of company Peep Wireless wants to be. At first I thought it was a mesh company. It has software that hops voice and data from device to device. But as I talked to Redmond I learned that Peep also has interesting technology that aggressively uses any available radio channel on a device to send its signal--Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, it doesn't matter. That sounded pretty cool, but it's a different pitch from the mesh story.
And in addition to the radio-agnostic transmission technology, Peep is also working on a system by which data can be sent via light pulses. Redmond said he's creating a technology demo for AT&T in which a bright light at the top of a building will be modulated to send HD-quality video data to iPhones across town. What this has to do with mesh networking I'm not sure. Redmond said he's doing the work because it was trivial for his team to create the technology, and AT&T seemed interested in it.
Peep is also building a key-fob-size walkie-talkie-like device that will transmit voice point-to-point up to 36 miles. It requires a Bluetooth headset as it has no speaker or mic of its own. My credulity strained when Redmond told me the device will be charged by harvesting and storing energy from ambient radio waves. He said such a device would be able to transmit for 8 to 15 minutes a day, more if it's also charged in a more traditional fashion. His "Peep Pod" device will sell for just $20, he says. (Redmond says radio wave trickle chargers will be shown by other companies at CES, and the concept has been proven.)
And then there's the viral marketing strategy, in which, Redmond says, companies like Starbucks will distribute branded mesh-based free phone-calling apps and leverage them as marketing tools as users are rewarded financially for forwarding the app to their friends.
Redmond's plan for getting his products out the door involves talking to a long list of partner candidates, staring with the cellular carriers, for whom he believes his mesh technology will save billions of dollars. If they don't bite, he'll pitch to upstart and wanna-be phone companies, like Google and Facebook. And if they aren't interested, he says, he'll give his products away to consumers (and make money from the advertising deals, I surmise).
Separately, all the technologies and business concepts Redmond described sound plausible, even if some only just, but for one self-funded 12-person company to try to wrap them all up sounds completely manic. Redmond is certainly passionate, and his ideas are attractive, but the business he described to me was not a start-up; it was more a psychotic Bell Labs. It's too much for one small company to tackle, and the lack of focus makes me wonder if Peep has the discipline to develop any of its ideas into viable businesses.