Mesh Networking

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Contents

How are we going to live in smarter cities?

YO!- Moments that matter [1]

There has been an influx of emerging technologies lately, such as new apps, autonomous cars, industrial automation, artificial intelligence, and smart devices. However, little has been mentioned about the underlying architecture that is going to support and integrate these technologies together. Once a solution is found, the idea of "smart cities" will become a reality. Today, the internet is the most established and preferred architecture used to connect the world together. However, to address some of the issues such as poor connections, congested networks, and expensive data plans, mesh networks have emerged as a solution to this [1].

For most North Americans, the internet’s structure (also referred to in this paper as a hub and spoke network) is the most familiar. Similarly, when the word WiFi is used, people assume that it is the internet - but it is not! Before diving deeper into this blog, it is important to understand that WiFi sends out wireless signals called radio waves (like the ones that a cell phone or radios use) [2]. The WiFi router itself emits these waves by plugging into a power supply. The only way to make a WiFi router function as an internet connection is if an “Ethernet” cable from an internet service provider is plugged into the router as well.

With a better understanding of WiFi signals, mesh networking will make more sense. In this blog, we will explore what mesh networking is, the current landscape of the telecommunications industry, and how mesh is used in the developed and developing world. Lastly, we will share our insights about the future of mesh and how it will alter the world that we live in.


What is mesh

Mesh networking is an alternative underlying architecture compared to the internet today. It has grown in popularity in the twenty first century to address problems such as high data and home internet costs, congested networks, and weak signals[3]. The most interesting property of a mesh network is the ability to share and connect with others around you - without an internet connection. Essentially, this means that internet service providers could be cut out of the equation.

In a world full of rapid technological advances in industrial automation, smart devices, and other applications, the topic of ‘how are we going to support and integrate these technologies together?’ has posed a serious question. This is particularly important today since the internet is limited in its ability to provide full coverage past certain distances of its range. Not only is this an issue in North American society, but it poses internet coverage issues in developing countries, too [4]. In South America, Asia, and Africa, internet infrastructure is extremely expensive to implement and therefore, two-thirds of the global population are currently unconnected[5]. With a fully connected world, there will be a substantial growth in the standards of living, better education, and a globalized economy.

Mesh networks are an inexpensive solution to addressing these issues and work with any device (e.g., Smartphones, tablets, and laptops) if you are connected to a network. The easiest way to create a network is to either create a hotspot on your device for others to connect to, or by using a WiFi signal – without an Ethernet cable plugged in. This works without an internet connection if cellular data is turned off or if a WiFi router is not connected to an Ethernet cable. Once you are on a network, you can share files and messages with people around you.

A more familiar analogy for mesh is peer-to-peer sharing. With peer-to-peer, people can send files to others directly from device to device. It decentralizes the process and cuts out the need to pass files or messages through a server, which is why it is very popular among file sharing apps[6]. One difference, however, is the ‘peer’ (i.e., device). In mesh, “peers can be quite different, such as parking meters...and they can route a user to a special service such as internet access or messaging[7] ". Additionally, peer to peer networks must be set-up manually whereas an autonomous mesh works behind the scenes. In an autonomous mesh, the network can be built from a variety of technologies including WiFi, Bluetooth, Cellular connectivity, WiFi direct, WiFi p2p and multi peer[8]

History of Mesh

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  • In the 1980’s, the military was one of the first organizations to explore mesh networks, as they proved to be a reliable communication method in rugged terrains. Their research into mesh was mostly halted due to the expensive cost of hardware at the time[9].
  • In the late 1990’s, as hardware became cheaper, universities began exploring mesh networks. In 1998, Carnegie Mellon built a mesh network which included a node at each end of campus and nodes placed on cars. MIT was also an early adopter of mesh with their networks called ‘Rooftop’[10].
  • In Catalonia, Spain in 2004, due to poor service from Internet Service Providers, a mesh network called ‘Guifi’ was set up as an alternative communication medium. Guifi is now the largest mesh network in the world, with over 32,000 active nodes[11].
  • In 2014 during the protests for democracy in Hong Kong, protesters used a mesh-enabled messaging app called FireChat when there was worry of network overloads or that authorities would shut down local cell phone towers. Protesters who downloaded the app were able to message each other throughout the protests, which greatly helped in coordinating their efforts[12].

Mesh Networking Today

  • Free wifi is available to the public in downtown San Jose using mesh networking technology. The network even leverages existing infrastructure such as parking meters, to act as nodes in the network. Users are able to reach speeds of 2-3 megabits per second, which is much faster than traditional public wifi[13].
  • The high cost of having a cell phone data plan in Canada has inspired two Toronto developers to try and create a mesh network in downtown Toronto. The developers are hoping that their network will strip cell providers of some of their power by providing free internet access to torontonians who roam downtown[14].
  • The US army currently uses a mesh network called CAISI to connect 40,000 wireless devices on the battlefield. The mesh network’s advantage is that it can endure rugged terrains with peaks and valleys, that once posed a problem with old radio communication. Since the army has a wealth of devices connected to the network (not just radios), the network can self-heal unlike before and provide consistent connection[15].

Let's Get Technical

Internet versus Mesh Structure [16]
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With a general understanding of what a mesh network is, it will be easier to understand its more technical properties. Further it is discussed how mesh is taking the “I” out of “IOT”, by allowing users to connect without the internet. Its architecture is referred to as a mesh topology, because every device (also referred to as a node) within it is connected to every other device within its network range[17]. This structure connects all nearby devices to each other, creating a web formation. This is a decentralized structure where any route can be taken to pass information to a device if there are a few devices in between. In this case, the network selects the best route for the file to pass through. This is achieved by using other nearby connected devices to form the architecture, without them knowing that they are being used as a bridge[18]. Another benefit of this is that if one device within the mesh topology has access to an internet connection, every other device can have access as well. Even if you are at the extreme end of the network, the connection will not be compromised. This is because your connection will come from the closest node to you, and as there are many devices along the way, the distance between you and the original source of the internet is shortened[19].

Conversely, in a traditional hub and spoke network the device is centralized. This means that there is one central device connecting all of the other devices together to form a network. Therefore, if the main point of access fails, the entire network goes down with it[20]. In a mesh network, if one access point goes down, it does not disrupt the network and alternative paths can be taken to share files. Mesh is able to “self-heal and self-configure[21]" itself better than the internet today, which makes it a smarter way to share”[22].

MIT - How mesh works [23]

This video from MIT explains the difference between mesh and the internet in more detail[1].

To imagine what mesh networks are capable of, consider the following scenarios by pretending that you are currently using a mesh network messaging app. In the first scenario you want to send a large file, such as a movie, to your best friend in the same lecture hall as you. In the second scenario you want to send a large file to a friend at a nearby Tim Hortons. In the third scenario you want to access a webpage on rescue puppies but don’t have a personal internet connection.

In the first scenario, where everyone in your lecture hall is connected to the university’s WiFi network, you will be able to send the large file directly device-to-device. This means that you won’t have to go through the traditional internet, where your message is passed through many routers to a server in California, most likely, and then back through routers to device B[2]. Even though the file passes through (or hops through) multiple devices to get to your friend, it can be sent at a fraction of the time that it would take for large movie file to be sent through the internet.

The second scenario is when you want to send a movie file to a friend waiting in line at Tim Hortons. In this situation, they are on the Tim Hortons WiFi network while you are connected to the university’s network. An interesting capability of mesh technology is that if there is someone in the middle of your lecture hall and Tim Hortons, that person’s device can switch between both networks automatically, and create a route to pass the file. That is considered one hop to a friend. On a larger scale, if your friend was at a shopping mall two kilometers away, as long as there are enough people between both of your locations, you can continually hop more devices to pass the message along.

The third scenario is if you want to access a webpage on rescue puppies, but don’t have a personal internet connection. In a mesh network, you do not need one. Once one person in the network has a connection, it is accessible to others around you. Therefore, you can use that person as your gateway onto the internet, and view as many rescue puppies as you’d like. Although there are no mobile or desktop applications that have been commercialized for this purpose, the technology does have this capability[3]. For example, implications of this capability can be seen via the use of mesh routers. This demonstrates how mesh technology helps strengthen the sharing economy.

As mesh progresses it could become a game changer to the business model of current internet service provider’s (ISP’s). This is because expensive internet infrastructure that ISP’s currently use, can be replaced with a mobile mesh network, benefiting consumers with drastic price drops in data plans[4]. Price advantages for individual users can also be gained through the sharing of these mesh connections.

Internet Infrastructure in the Developing World

Internet Setup: LANs, WLANs, and hotspots[5]

Internet connectivity plays a major role in the everyday lives of individuals and businesses around the world. However, due to the ease of access and multiple channels of availability, such as LANs, WLANs, hotspots, and cellular networks, internet usage is often taken for granted. Similarly, the costs to implement and maintain these networks are often overlooked by consumers. Implementing a mesh network is a relatively simple process, however, to evaluate its benefits and limitations we must first compare the alternatives currently available.

LANs

A local area network (LAN) is a group of computers and associated devices that share a common communication line or wireless link to a server. However, this setup is limited within a geographic region. Installing an Ethernet LAN system is relatively inexpensive for homes and small offices. Requirements include the purchase of an Ethernet port, running of Cat 5/6 wires, and the optional purchase of a Router[6]. LANs are traditionally found in homes and small business, as they are relatively inexpensive to implement. This is primarily due to the fact that users do not traditionally require symmetrical upload and download speeds. Therefore, internet service providers take advantage of shared connections and can rely on pre-existing infrastructure, such as DSL and cable lines[7].

WLANs

Wireless local area networks (WLANs), otherwise known as WiFi, are capable of providing the same services as an Ethernet connection, with the ease of scalability through multiple access point implementation. WLANs can be prone to issues such as reduced bandwidth, due to multiple users attempting to access the internet simultaneously[8]. Furthermore, due to a WLAN’s architecture and lack of self-healing properties, connections are subject to environmental disruptions, such as physical objects and electronic devices. To address these issues users can implement more access points and may invest in a dedicated subscriber line, such as a T1 or T3 line[9]. These lines are used by many medium to large organizations, such as businesses and universities. These lines are much faster; however, they are expensive to implement and maintain, and therefore cost between $1500 - $12,000 per month[10].

Hotspot

Enabling hotspots allows multiple users to access the internet through a single access point. This is no different than a WLAN with an enabled access point. The signal is limited in terms of geographical range. Upon exiting the hotspot range the user will have to rely on cell phone networks or connect to another hotspot. The hotspot is a closed system unless the admin has specified permission requirements. Businesses such as Starbucks and Mcdonald's have adopted these networks to attract customers and increase foot traffic[11]. However, the main limitation faced with hotspots is that as the number of users accessing the hotspot increase the network’s bandwidth, capabilities decrease.

Mesh

Implementing a mesh network for internet access is conceptually similar to a hotspot. However, the mesh network can be supported by multiple gateways and access points. This allows the mesh to continue to provide internet access throughout the entire network in the case that an internet access point malfunctions. One of the main advantages to implementing a mesh network over hotspots is the strength of the network increases as the number of users increase. That is, as long as the relay devices can support mesh data transfers[12]. Furthermore, the implementation costs of mesh are significantly less, as only 5% - 10% of network users need to be connected to the internet to cover the entire network[13]. For example, San Jose’s mesh network project provides free, high-speed internet access to the entire downtown core, and only cost the city $94,000 to implement [14]. The range of the network can be further extended with repeaters and mesh routers. Repeaters can extend network coverage without being connected to an actual internet source or user. San Jose’s mesh network utilizes existing SmartWave technologies, such as parking meters, to extend network coverage[15]. Mesh routers function as access points to connect individuals, however, their significant difference is that they use smart switching protocols. This allows the network to efficiently use bandwidth and allocate it amongst users within the network, to ensure a strong and secure connection is always available. Further, since these routers are capable of providing and sharing internet access among users, they could reduce the number of LANs required to provide internet to homes, businesses, and even entire neighborhoods. These routers are now commercially available by companies such as Google, Luma, and eero. Typical mesh routers are priced around $250 and are sold in sets of 2 and 3 [16].


Internet Infrastructure in the Developing World

When considering the developing world, such as within Africa and South America, where approximately 1% of the total population has access to a broadband connection, the cost to implement the infrastructure for LANs on a large scale is economically unfeasible[17]. Rather, a more acceptable method to adopt the internet has been to move directly to wireless connection methods. This is made possible through the use of cell towers and internet receiver boxes. However, the data plans required to use these internet receivers are considerably more expensive than data plans throughout North America and Europe. For example, in Kenya the average data plan for internet access provides 50 Gigabytes of monthly usage for $105 USD[18]. However, many may consider 50 Gigabytes inadequate for popular services, such as video streaming and file sharing. More importantly, $105 USD is considered far too expensive, as the average annual income is approximately $1010 USD.


Below, the chart depicts the implementation costs of Ethernet, WLAN, and mesh infrastructure:

Costs Ethernet Lan Mesh
Ethernet/PoE Port $35 - $1000 $35 $35


Installation $200 $250 $200


AP $75 $1,300 (50 users) $250


Controller Null $15,000 (50 APs) Null


Installed Cost for 100 users $23,500 $16,585 $1,250


Installed Cost for 1,000 users $235,000 $46,700 $12,500

The chart was made using the following assumptions: Based on assumption that average household access point costs $75. Based on assumption that average mesh access point costs $250. Based on the minimum requirement of 5% internet access points for entire network coverage.

The Future of Telecommunications Providers

If communities begin to utilize mesh networks to communicate messages and to connect to the internet, individuals will discover that they have less reliance on telecommunications providers. Below an overview of how this developments could alter the traditional telecommunications companies are reviewed, in a comparison drawn to NYC Mesh, an organization which currently runs a mesh network.


As suggested by the name, NYC Mesh is an organization based in New York City that encourages residences to adopt the usage of mesh networks. Not only do they assist citizens in sharing internet access, but they have also built web servers that contain chat rooms and the storage of local data. These efforts are spearheaded by self-taught network engineers, and rely on a team of volunteers to help distribute the equipment needed to run the network[19].

The Nature of the Industry

Telecommunications companies generally cater to three different customer groups: 1) consumers, 2) corporate clients including both small and large businesses, and 3) small telecommunications companies. The smaller telecommunications companies may be clients of a larger telecommunications company, in the event that they need to connect to a larger company’s infrastructure[20].

Comparatively, mesh networks also may be used by both general consumers and businesses[21]. However, the relationship between users and mesh network organizations is not what is typically expected between a consumer and a business. For example, in New York, those interested in joining the mesh network can do so by purchasing an appropriate third-party router off of the NYC Mesh website. Users would then place this router near a window or on a rooftop. Once the routers have been connected to the internet, they then create a hotspot, which anyone can connect to[22]. Therefore, in this model, no monetary payments are directly received by NYC Mesh.


It should be noted that other mesh network organizations have begun to charge general consumers for more extensive coverage, both at home and within certain regions. However, this still proves to be more beneficial for customers than purchasing the internet from a traditional internet service provider, as there are no data caps or contracts[23].

Customer Satisfaction & Accessibility

The telecommunications industry is often difficult to navigate from a consumer perspective. In fact, the net promoter score of many large telecommunications companies making over $100 million US a year is negative. For example, Viacom in the United Kingdom has a score of -23, and the Netherlands’ Tele2 has a score of -18[24]. This means that customers of these companies are spreading negative word-of-mouth reviews of these providers. Indeed, complaints about telecommunication services are so frequent, that in Canada, there is a Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS)[25]. Additionally, although these companies attempt to compete on price, from a consumer perspective, prices are still too high and poor customer service is prominent[26]. Moreover, as industry players merge, this makes certain corporations extremely powerful, in terms of setting prices and restricting customers[27]. For example, in the United States Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks have now merged, resulting in Charter becoming the second largest telecommunications company in the United States. Therefore, the U.S. government has placed restrictions on charter for the next seven years, such as having no usage-based pricing[28].


Unlike these traditional telecommunications companies, mesh network organizations tend to be rooted in a culture that values the empowerment of everyday citizens, and inclusivity. For example, the drive of the volunteers who create NYC Mesh, comes from their interest in reducing the power large telecommunications providers can have, and to eliminate consumer exposure to poor treatment and high prices[29]. Thus we can see that with mesh networks, consumers are viewed as partners, and customer satisfaction would be expected to increase. Moreover, this empowerment and fairness to the consumer is emphasized as a long-term perspective, and does not have an expiry date, such as the regulations that the U.S. have passed for Charter.

Internet Accessibility Beyond the Home

An example of a new service that telecommunications companies are offering is free public WiFi access via hotspots. In Canada, this offering is visible amongst both Shaw Communications and Telus, however in both instances each provider is implementing this service using a different tactic. For example, to access Shaw Go WiFi, an individual must already be a paying Shaw internet customer[30], whereas Telus offers free WiFi to any individual who inputs their email and registers[31].


These WiFi hotspots are indeed very similar to mesh networks in the sense that they are offered in various locations around a city[32][33], and that they aim to connect large amounts of people. However, as they are connected directly to the actual internet, they bring with them the challenges that all internet connections do. This includes a lack of security, reliance on a stable internet connection to communicate, congestion and slow speeds when usage rates are high, and complex architecture such as cables to create the connection.

Eliminating Internet Service Providers & Cellular Services

Pictures are the Super Nodes required to connect to internet exchanges. [34]
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This is the current area that Meshnet covers in Nunavut.[35].


Mesh networks hold the power to eliminate the need for certain services offered by telecommunications providers, although the main barrier to doing this is scale. For example, although individuals can already message one another offline with mesh, they must be within a certain range of one another. Therefore, more touch points (or users) are needed, in order to make the sending of mesh messages to anyone in the city, or the world, possible[36]. Of course, in order to completely eliminate internet Service Providers from being needed, NYC Mesh would have to connect to internet exchanges themselves. To accomplish this feat, it would require them to purchase ‘Super Nodes’ which have this capability[37].

The purchase of ‘Super Nodes’ is feasible, and has already been done by Meshnet, another mesh network organization. Meshnet has gone beyond the abilities of NYC Mesh by becoming their own internet Service Provider operating in Nunavut. This means that they do charge a fee for their services, but all users have unlimited internet access, and are not bound by a contract. Thus, the price is determined based on whether you are purchasing only hotspot access around the connected region, or if you desire home internet access[38]. This payment structure exists to prevent over congestion of the network. Additionally, Meshnet retains the ground-up mentality of mesh networks by offering free equipment to organizations or businesses that offer to host a hotspot[39].

Mesh in Developed Countries

In the developed world, mesh networks can be utilized to improve the capabilities of current technologies. Below, several key use cases of mesh networks in the developed world are discussed. This includes using mesh networks to build stronger internet connections, using mesh networks with mobile apps to track missing items, and the use of mesh network apps as a communication tool during natural disasters.

Use Case #1: Stronger Internet Connections

The Luma mesh routers can be purchased in a package of 3 for $299.[40].
Mesh routers can be placed different rooms of a house, creating a seamless WiFi experience.[41].

In order for a mesh network to be used to create a stronger internet connection, devices known as mesh routers are required. The following steps break-down how to use mesh routers to build a mesh network: 1) Connect a mesh router to an internet connected modem, 2) Place several other mesh routers around the desired area of connectivity, and 3) Turn on the mesh routers to allow them to connect via a mesh network. As a result, this would create an undisturbed internet coverage, and allows users to connect to any one of the mesh routers[42][43].

Consumer Usage

There are currently several brands of mesh routers available on the market for household usage. Two notable brands are Luma and eero, which both sell their products in a package of three. Once purchased, these routers may be placed on separate levels within a house, and in areas such as basements, where WiFi connections may be difficult to maintain[44]. Naturally, homeowners may also wish to use the mesh routers for non-traditional purposes as well. For example, some are made to be weather resistant, and can be placed outdoors. This allows connectivity to no longer be restricted by the walls of a home[45].


Business usage

Of course, the use of mesh routers has also been sold to commercial businesses as well. One Canadian company, Open Mesh, is doing particularly well in this industry. Open Mesh began as a project to eliminate the digital divide in education, when it was observed that children without home internet connections had lower school performance rates. With the help of professionals from MIT, eventually Open Mesh successfully utilized mesh networks to connect various families in a low-income housing complex to a single internet connection. Today, Open Mesh now has more of a corporate focus when it comes to clients. A notable example is the Westin Grand Hotel located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This client had discovered that hotel guests had poor internet service in certain locations within the hotel, and also faced low internet speeds. After placing 40 mesh access points around the hotel, $65,000 in fees were saved[46].

Use Case #2: Item Tracking with Nearable

Nearable uses the power of mesh connectivity and partnerships with various mobile applications, to help users find lost items. Therefore, users can even find their lost dog.[47].

Nearable is a tracking device that operates by using BLE mesh networks. Therefore, in a few simple steps, it allows users to easily find any lost item worldwide. This is accomplished due to its collaboration with widely-used apps, such as Twitter. Likewise, if users place a tracker near someone who has the Twitter app on their phone, Nearable can inform you of the tracker’s location. The process of using Nearable to track an item are as follow: 1) Place a tracker on an item that you wish to track 2) Download the Nearable app 3) Nearable’s tracker connects to other apps 4) Feedback is received, back to Nearable’s cloud 5) Your object will be located and found

For an excellent video recap of how Nearable works, please visit their website at: [1]

Use Case #3: FireChat App

The mobile application FireChat utilizes mesh networks, and has helped protesters communicate. [48]

FireChat is a mobile mesh networking app created by Open Garden Inc. It was originally built for use in developed countries as a way to communicate in the event of a natural disaster. As discussed above, mesh networks do not require access to a cellular tower[1], and therefore this application allows communication where cellular towers do not exist, or when cellular towers are out of use. However, in order to communicate, users must be within 70 metres of another FireChat user. Additionally, the app also includes an open forum feature, where individuals can connect with users they do not know [2].


FireChat made headlines in March 2014 when it was used in Taiwan by protesters, who were upset about a Taiwan-China trade agreement. The protesters were concerned about the government shutting down cellular services, so they downloaded the app to ensure that they could communicate. As a result, the app became a platform for discussions between those in Taiwan and Beijing. Previously, such an exchange could not occur, due to firewall restrictions implemented by the Chinese government[3]. Later, in October 2014, it appeared in the news once more, for the role that it played in keeping protesters in Hong Kong connected[4].

Mesh in Developing Countries

Countries are classified into developed and developing categories based on various factors, with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita being a primary one. Typically a GDP per capita of between $12,000 and $25,000 is necessary to classify a country as developed[5]

The percentage of income each country puts towards telecommunications is varied[6]

Therefore, as developed countries are characterized by their high incomes, it is no surprise that when compared to their developing counterparts, communications takes up a smaller portion of overall income. While the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reports that the cost of telecommunication has fallen in the past years, developing countries still pay a relatively significant amount compared to their developed counterparts. For developing countries, telecommunications were nearly 20% of an individual’s Gross National Income (GNI) in 2010, compared to an approximate 3% in developed countries[7].


As developing countries tend to be less industrialized, there are several areas of wild terrain that are considered inaccessible by road or rail. This discourages telecommunications companies from providing connectivity to the individuals in these rural areas, due to the large sums they would have to invest in transporting and setting up of infrastructure[8]. In the table above, under Internet Infrastructure in the Developing World, we see that mesh costs less than a third of the costs of implementing a Wireless Local Area Network, and costs less than a tenth of setting up an Ethernet connection.

Use Case #1: YO! - Fast Data, Free Sharing

Yo! Is a mobile app that was first launched in 2015. It provides an alternative way for smartphone users to connect and share, by sending messages and various forms of media peer-to-peer over WiFi, without needing to connect via the internet. Users can also post content for other YO! users to view offline[9]. The application had close to 700,000 downloads in its first year mostly due to users in Bangladesh, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Iran. The app has also been gaining popularity in Cuba, a country that has government restricted internet access. As one requires a permit to have internet access, the YO! Application makes communication and the sharing of files between individuals a simpler process[10].

Use Case #2: One Laptop Per Child

Improving literacy rates one laptop at a time. [11]

Another application of mesh in developing countries is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, that was founded in 2005, by Nicholas Negroponte. The goal of the initiative is to provide durable moisture and heat resistant laptops, known as XO laptops, to children in developing countries. As a result, it is expected to increases developing countries’ access to information and improve literacy rates. The initiative has been implemented in Peru, the Middle East, Rwanda, Uruguay, Ethiopia and the South Pacific region[1]. For example, the XO laptop possesses a “Neighbourhood view” that displays all the XO laptops in a child’s proximity and shared activities. The XO laptops then uses mesh to connect to each other, allowing children to learn by sharing content and interacting with each other[2].

Summary of Mesh Networks Advantages

  • They are self-healing and self-configuring: if a data packet is sent in a mesh network, it will automatically take the shortest path to reach its final destination. If a node in that path is down, it will automatically take a different path.
  • They can reduce our dependence on expensive ISPs and make communication and networks cheaper to use: there are already well established mesh networks such as those in San Jose and Catalonia, that are allowing users to depend far less on ISPs.
  • They reduce internet congestion in a couple ways:
    • Suppose Facebook messenger was mesh enabled. If you sent a message to a friend who was beside you, rather than the message going through a series of routers, a server in a distant area and back to your friend, the message would go directly to them.
    • “Caching” - Suppose there is a group of five people all connected in a mesh network. If one person downloads a file from the internet, the other four people can then access that file without having to re-download it from the internet, thereby reducing downloading redundancy and internet congestion.
  • Mesh networks can make internet connection faster: once again, imagine five people are connected in a mesh network. If two of the five individuals are connected to the internet, yet only one person is currently using it, then that person’s connection speed is twice as fast. If there were three people connected to the internet and only one person using it, connection would be three times as fast, and so on.
  • Messages are encrypted: message encryption is the same in mesh networks as it is when using an application such as WhatsApp. Although the safety of information is not guaranteed, it takes a very sophisticated hacker to access the information being shared[3].
  • Reliability in the event of network shut downs and natural disasters: one of the weaknesses of traditional networks is that they’re administered through a central access point, and they can be shut down by authorities. Since mesh networks are decentralized and controlled by the users themselves, they are much more reliable in extreme circumstances.

Summary of Mesh Networks Disadvantages

  • Mesh networks require a high density of devices to function: in order for a message to reach its recipient in a mesh, the message must “hop” from device to device. If the distance between devices is too great, the message will be unable to reach its recipient. This is likely the greatest disadvantages of mesh networks.
  • Internet speeds can be slower with a high user-to-connection ratio: if only a few people have internet connections in a mesh network, and many people are surfing the internet, congestion will occur. For instance, if five people are connected in a mesh network and only two people have an internet connection, everyone’s internet speed would be reduced if all five people tried to download files at once. This is because they all would be relying on the speed of two devices.
  • Delays may occur for large data transfers: when data has to travel far distances, such as with video conferencing, voice and video can become glitchy. The greater the distance between devices in the mesh, the weaker the connection[4].
  • Internet connected mesh networks are prone to some of the same security risks as traditional networks: the internet brings with it various security risks, including passive monitoring and denial of service attacks. One added security risk of mesh networks is a physical attack. For example, if someone steals a device that is a critical node in the mesh (a node by which all data must pass through), the mesh will no longer be able to function[5].

Future Applications

Internet of Things

The internet of things (IoT) is a relatively new and growing market of devices. Individuals and organizations are relying more and more on sensors to capture data in real time. Mesh networks can be used to assist with setting up and connecting a network of devices covering large areas.

One of the first commercial applications of a mesh network for capturing large amounts of data took place in 2012. The government of California teamed up with UC Berkeley to measure snowfall throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Eastern California. Snow information is considered very important to the state, as it is used to anticipate droughts, to allocate water resources between the public and private sectors of the economy, and is key to agricultural planning[6]. Previously, snow levels were measured through a wireless network of sensors spread throughout the mountain range. However, the state experienced that these wired networks were too expensive, unreliable, and difficult to maintain, with too few data points to create an operational picture of the watershed. The state implemented a completely wireless mesh network of 300 nodes spread out across the region, and was able to successfully collect accurate snow levels to predict future water availability[7].

This is just one of the many mesh networks set up to aid in data collection. As mesh technologies continue to become commercialized, one can expect that more and more companies will integrate this technology into their business processes. This is because mesh networks are more reliable, scalable, and cost-effective compared to traditional wired and wireless networks.

Vehicle to Vehicle Communication

Connected Cars. [8]

Similarly to IoT, the industry of autonomous vehicles is growing and is expected to be adopted by as early as 2020[9]. However, many are hesitant in adopting such a technology, as the risks associated with possible malfunctions can be fatal. Vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication is a possible solution to further decrease these risks. Implementing a mesh network to facilitate V2V communication would allow for an inexpensive and scalable means of vehicle communication[10]. Further, mesh’s self-healing properties would increase the reliability of the network, and increase network strength as the total number of users grows. Additionally, infrastructure such as traffic lights and signs can be further equipped with mesh capabilities to better manage traffic patterns[11].

Connecting the Unconnected

Due to the fact that there is a lack of internet connectivity in the developing world, many telecommunications and technology companies have begun testing new methods to provide reliable internet connections. Notable examples include Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Internet.org.

Google announced the development of Project Loon on June 14, 2013. Project Loon attempts to provide internet access to approximately 5 billion unconnected users. Google is utilizing a combination of helium balloons equipped with access points and supernodes constructed on the ground. Each balloon acts as a mobile cell tower and connects to each other through its mesh capabilities. Due to this, large areas can be covered with relatively little investment in infrastructure. For example, the entire region of West Africa (5,112,903 km2), could be covered with a combination of 8 super nodes and 250 balloons[12]. Furthermore, the balloons fly at an altitude of 65,000 feet to ensure that they do not interfere with aircraft. Additionally, each balloon can be remotely controlled by Google’s operations team to allow for routine maintenance[13].

Similarly, Facebook’s Internet.org project has begun development of solar powered internet drones. Theses drones are currently still in the prototyping stage, but are expected to gain internet access through a supernode attached to a Facebook satellite. To increase coverage of the system, drones will be equipped with mesh capabilities to push internet signals to rural areas[14]. Facebook is also developing special lasers to emit data to internet receivers, which will ideally be placed on rooftops. These lasers will allow for download speeds of tens of gigabits per second. Additionally, the use of lasers to emit data signals will allow the drones to accurately connect to devices over 10 miles away[15]. Facebook plans to use these drones to provide reliable and cost-effective internet service to ISPs in rural areas.

Facebook internet drones. [16]

Conclusion: What would the world look like if mesh networks became ubiquitous?

In the future, it is believed that mesh networks do have the ability to flourish. As discussed above, mesh networks hold significant benefits over current telecommunications companies, and have applications in both the developed and developing world. Coupled with the fact that there is a trend towards the number of smart and connected devices, as well as a predicted increase in data usage[17], there is strong evidence of a continuing demand for alternative ways to connect.


As for immediate effects in the developed world, connectivity would come at a cheaper price. Telecommunications companies would be stripped of much of their bargaining power, forcing them to offer their services at lower prices. People would be able to surf the net freely without having to worry about surprise $300 cell phone bills. Additionally, roaming charges would no longer be a worry, making cell phones much more useful when travelling abroad. Overcrowded networks at concert arenas would become a thing of the past. In the case of natural disasters, mobile devices would become a reliable method of communication.


Mesh networks also prove promising when paired with emerging technologies. As mentioned previously, mesh-enabled autonomous cars would be able to communicate with each other, making them safer and more reliable. Smart homes would also be a perfect application of mesh networks, given the density of devices within a home. Wearable technologies that also require internet connections, could also experience a surge in adoption. Even something as simple as parking could be greatly improved with mesh networks; rather than searching for parking spots on roads or in private lots, real-time parking spot availability could be communicated to nearby cars.


With the adoption of mesh in developing countries, prices of internet connectivity could be slashed, and internet services can be shared amongst users - connecting the unconnected. The impact of this is massive. Schools, classrooms, teachers and school supplies, which often pose a large barrier to education, are no longer needed. If children have access to even a shared computer that is connected to internet, they have access to an endless amount of education through resources such as Youtube, ebooks, or open source online courses from universities. Access to the internet also allows families to become educated on basic healthcare information, helping them prevent diseases and better treat any they may currently have. Farmers and merchants are provided with the opportunity to become more educated on the market price of their products, preventing them from being taken advantage of by selling their products well below market value. All of these benefits in turn lead to a better quality of life for people who struggle to obtain basic life necessities.

Authors of This Blog

  • Moni Manhas
  • Kerri Jesson
  • Nico Giuriato
  • Jeevan Takhar
  • Kondwani Vwalika

References

  1. One Laptop per Child. (2008). One Laptop per Child. Retrieved from http://laptop.org/en/vision/mission/index.shtml
  2. Beitler, D. (2013, October). National programmes, technical projects: An ethnography of the one laptop per child (OLPC) programme in Uruguay. Retrieved from http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/791/1/__lse.ac.uk_storage_LIBRARY_Secondary_libfile_shared_repository_Etheses_Content_Theses%20submitted%20by%20students%20%26%20alumni_Live%20theses_Beitler_ethnography_one_laptop_2013(public).pdf
  3. Interview with Dr. Jason Ernst [Interviewed: October 1, 2016]
  4. Interview with Dr. Jason Ernst [Interviewed: October 1, 2016]
  5. Interview with Dr. Jason Ernst [Interviewed: October 1, 2016]
  6. Dust Networks. (2013). Wireless Sensor Networks Make It Possible to Predict Precious Water Supplies. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.linear.com/products/smartmesh_ip
  7. Dust Networks. (2013). Wireless Sensor Networks Make It Possible to Predict Precious Water Supplies. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.linear.com/products/smartmesh_ip
  8. Wired, (2014) Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/09/connected-cars/ photo reference
  9. Greenough, J. (2016, June 15). 10 million self-driving cars will be on the road by 2020. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://www.businessinsider.com/report-10-million-self-driving-cars-will-be-on-the-road-by-2020-2015-5-6
  10. Knight, W. (2015). Car-to-Car Communication. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/534981/car-to-car-communication/
  11. Knight, W. (2015). Car-to-Car Communication. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/534981/car-to-car-communication/
  12. Simonite, T. (2015). Project Loon. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/534986/project-loon/
  13. Tung, L. (2016, September 26). Google's Project Loon: Now AI can steer its 4G-beaming balloons to right part of sky | ZDNet. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.zdnet.com/article/googles-project-loon-now-ai-can-steer-its-4g-beaming-balloons-to-right-part-of-sky/
  14. Newton, C. (2016). Inside the test flight of Facebook's first internet drone. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.theverge.com/a/mark-zuckerberg-future-of-facebook/aquila-drone-internet
  15. Newton, C. (2016). Inside the test flight of Facebook's first internet drone. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.theverge.com/a/mark-zuckerberg-future-of-facebook/aquila-drone-internet
  16. theverge, (2014) theverge. Retrieved from http://www.theverge.com/a/mark-zuckerberg-future-of-facebook/aquila-drone-internet
  17. Wigginton, C. (2016). Telecommunications industry outlook. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/telecommunications-industry-outlook.html
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