Unbreakable: Mesh networks are in your smartphone's future

Two entrepreneurs think it's time for smartphones to start cooperating with each other by sharing network connections.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

It's not that we're running out of mobile bandwidth. It's just that it's poorly distributed.

If you're in your home next to a Wi-Fi router, you might have a clean signal and access to a 12-megabit connection. Meanwhile, someone outside your door could have a smartphone that's struggling to hold onto a slow connection to a cellular tower a mile away. But mesh networking might make things better for everyone.

Mesh networks let devices share their connections with other users. If one user has a clean network connection and another nearby user does not, the second user can piggyback on the first's, automatically. If there's a collection of many people, their machines can all cooperate to make connections -- to each other and to the global Internet. In advanced mesh networks, connections and data can hop among devices, creating ad hoc bucket-brigade paths for communication.

The concept of mesh networking is not new. Many military systems rely on mesh networking, since forces in the field cannot rely on communications infrastructures. Utilities also use mesh networks for collecting data from equipment, like smart meters.

On this Reporters' Roundtable, I interview two innovators in mesh networking. They're both trying to bring this liberating (they say) and bandwidth-saving (ditto) technology to the masses.

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Watch this: Reporters' Roundtable Ep. 126: Mesh Networks


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Micha Benoliel's company, Open Garden, makes a mesh networking utility for Android smartphones and for Windows and Mac laptops (support for iOS is coming). It's a free app that turns your device into a mobile hot spot. No matter how you're connected to the Net (Wi-Fi or cellular), it makes that connection shareable (over Bluetooth) to other Open Garden users. Likewise, if you're running the product but don't have a connection to the Net, and you're near a user who does, this service seamlessly gets you online.

Benoliel says that, for the most part, carriers and ISPs welcome technologies that improve bandwidth for customers and that also lower power requirements (connecting to a nearby hot spot over Bluetooth takes a lot less power than linking to a cell tower). "The only way to improve the wireless networks is to increase the density of microcells or hot spots. I think carriers really understand that," he says. His pitch: "We turn every device into a hot spot... and we improve the network itself."

Sri Srikrishna was the founding CTO of the mesh networking company Tropos (recently acquired by ABB), and is now working on bringing mesh technologies to populations where today's standard wireless networking technologies are insufficient, or are blocked. See his paper, "SocialMesh: Can Networks of Meshed Smartphones Ensure Public Access to Twitter During an Attack?"

Srikrisha says it's time to do two things for people who don't have reliable means to connect to the global net. First of all, we can make better, more frequency-agile radios. Second: Mesh them together.

Hooking users together through mesh networks can also democratize communications and make them, he believes, more robust in the face of repressive regimes that might want to shut down the capability to reach the outside world. With a mesh network, a very small number of users who happen to have a connection can share that with other users who don't. "If you have a large number of these devices, no government will be able to stop it," he says.

Srikrishna and Benoliel both claim that the global growth of smartphones -- all are handheld computers easily capable of supporting mesh networking stacks -- should lead to a global infrastructure shift, in which these handsets become a bigger part of the infrastructure itself, not just clients on it.

"Can you build a network that's indestructible?" asks Srikrishna. He says it's worth doing. "A lot of the problems in the world can be solved if you can have UStream everywhere in the world, without being blocked."

Watch the full, geeky discussion in the video here.