Can This Readily Available Technology Extend the Internet’s Reach?

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In a world of ever-growing networks, increasing Wi-Fi hotspots, and a greater number of devices that connect online wirelessly, the ability to access the Internet everywhere seems like it would be a given. Yet gaps in Internet access persist throughout the world.

Proposed solutions to these gaps range from drones to satellites to municipalities establishing their own broadband networks. Another proposed solution is one that is gaining attention lately: the mesh network. GigaOm just published an opinion piece by Open Garden CEO Micha Benoliel, in which he suggests that mesh networks are a potential solution to connectivity issues.

A mesh network is a one based on the connectivity of devices themselves to other devices to build up a network instead of relying on an Internet service provider to connect devices through its network. (Harvard University’s Berkman Center posted a video on YouTube that explains the concept.) The more devices in the system, the stronger the mesh network gets and the further it can extend. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is the system that Open Garden’s off-the-grid, Internet-free messaging app FireChat is based on.

Benoliel’s argument does have some merit. Mesh networks have their benefits. They are often community-built decentralized networks that could be useful to more rural communities that may be too far out to access an urban center’s Internet infrastructure. Plus, the technology to build these networks is often easily available.

Besides the novelty of a system that is based on devices instead of having to depend on an Internet connection, they can be highly useful after disasters, an argument that the Open Garden CEO mentions in his piece. Mesh networks were utilized in Brooklyn neighborhood Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy and in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, establishing needed communications infrastructure that allowed for the quicker organization of resources. In both cases, the systems were set up quickly and provided a reliable form of Internet connection.

The way Internet connectivity often works is the opposite way. A company provides connections to its centralized Internet network for a fee, often monthly. An Internet service provider employee installs the system, and the company provides specialized equipment to the customer. This system is popular, but has its flaws. If any equipment is damaged, the quality of the network can be affected. This can happen in a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster quite easily.

Despite this different construction model, mesh networks can be connected to and help extend regular Internet connections by sharing them. Or they can establish their own “Internet” by building up the mesh networks and adding servers. In this way, Benoliel is correct in that mesh networks can used to extend the Internet. The question of how it will happen is another story.

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