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Don't mesh with me!

02 September 2014

I've extolled the virtues of mesh networking as an alternative to the existing cellular network connectivity for mobile phones and SMS messaging on a number of occasions through this column.

The concept is that, instead of relying on an expensive network of fixed access points or cell-towers, a wifi-equipped device can propagate data (text, voice or video messages) by simply handing it down a bucket-brigade of other similar devices, until it reaches the intended target.

Why would you want to do this?

Well firstly it could be cheaper... requiring no monthly stipend to be paid to a mobile carrier.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, such a system would continue to work even in the event of major damage to the infrastructure of our communications network such as may occur during a significant natural disaster.

Well it seems that the protesters filling the streets of Hong Kong this week have proven just how effective such a mobile mesh network can be.

Fearing that the government would shut down the mobile networks in an attempt to disrupt the protester's ability to organise themselves, many of those who have marched to demand proper democracy in Hong Kong have opted to use a wifi-based mesh network to stay in touch with each other.

Over 100,000 downloads of the free FireChat mobile app have reported from the Hong Kong area and people have set up ad-hoc mesh networks using this app -- those networks effectively operating without any reliance on the traditional carriers.

Relying on either the wifi or Bluetooth connectivity in a mobile phone or tablet, the app seems to be providing an effective communications facility for the huddled masses although experts believe that the government can still record the data being transferred and, if it wanted, jam those communications.

Responding to the lack of security, FireChat has said that it intends to add encryption to a future release so that only authorised nodes of the mesh could actually read the data being transferred.

Obviously the performance of such a mesh is limited and severe degradation would occur when the bandwidth between nodes became saturated but the success of the concept in the case of the Hong Kong protests clearly proves that it may have significant value in times of emergency.

How long before some keen amateurs get in on the act and set up some trunking (perhaps by way of point-to-point 2.4GHz or 5GHz data-links) around NZ that could act as a backbone which might provide inter-mesh networking -- effectively joining one town to the next, such that it became possible to create a nation-wide mesh for the purposes of civil defence?

Such systems could be solar-powered and operate without any need for human intervention -- providing a useful alternative to the commercial mobile networks and effectively delivering an invaluable link in times of emergency.

Given how (increasingly) frequently Spark's internet infrastructure seems to be failing of late, such a network may become more of a necessity than a luxury!

Of course the time to set your mobile phone up with the capability of operating as part of a mesh network is *now* -- not once the Net and mobile networks have been crushed to dust by a major earthquake. The big question is: which mesh networking app do we use and how can we convince everyone to download it in anticipation of the worst?

Is this something that Civil Defence should be promoting as an important part of your readiness to deal with a natural disaster? Food, water, blankets, torch, matches and... mesh networking app for your smartphone?

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