People tend to talk about the Internet the way they talk about democracy—optimistically, and in terms that describe how it ought to be rather than how it actually is.
This idealism is what buoys much of the network neutrality debate, and yet many of what are considered to be the core issues at stake—like payment for tiered access, for instance—have already been decided. For years, Internet advocates have been asking what regulatory measures might help save the open, innovation-friendly Internet.
But increasingly, another question comes up: What if there were a technical solution instead of a regulatory one? What if the core architecture of how people connect could make an end run on the centralization of services that has come to define the modern net?
It's a question that reflects some of the Internet's deepest cultural values, and the idea that this network—this place where you are right now—should distribute power to people. In the post-NSA, post-Internet-access-oligopoly world, more and more people are thinking this way, and many of them are actually doing something about it.
Among them, there is a technology that's become a kind of shorthand code for a whole set of beliefs about the future of the Internet: "mesh networking." These words have become a way to say that you believe in a different, freer Internet.
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Mesh networks promise the things we already expect but don't always get from the Internet: they're fast, reliable, and relatively inexpensive. But before we get into the particulars of what this alternate Internet might look like, a quick refresher on how the one we have works:
Your computer is connected to an Internet service provider like Comcast, which sends packets of your data (the binary stuff of emails, tweets, Facebook status updates, web addresses, etc.) back and forth across the network. The packets that move across the Internet encounter a series of checkpoints including routers and servers along the paths your data travels. You can't control these paths or these checkpoints, so your data is subject to all kinds of security threats like hackers and snooping NSA agents.
So the idea behind mesh networking is to skip those checkpoints and cut out the middleman service provider whenever possible. This can work when each device in a network connects to the other devices, rather than each device connecting to the ISP.
It helps to visualize it. The image on the left shows a network built around a centralized hub, like the Internet as we know it. The image on the right is what a mesh network looks like:
Think of it this way: With a mesh network, each device is like a mini cell phone tower. So instead of having multiple devices rely on a single, centralized hub; multiple devices rely on one another. And with information ricocheting across the network more unpredictably between those devices, the network as a whole is harder to take out.
"You end up with a network that is much harder to disrupt," said Stanislav Shalunov, co-founder of Open Garden, a startup that develops peer-to-peer and mesh networking apps. "There is no single point where you can unplug and expect that there will be a large impact."
Plus, a mesh network forms itself based on an algorithm—which again reduces opportunities for disruption. "There is no human intervention involved, even from the users of the devices and certainly not from any administrative entity that needs to arrange the topology of this network or how people are connected or how the network is used," Shalunov told me. "It is entirely up to the people participating and the software that runs this network to make everything work."
Your regular old smartphone already has the power to connect to other smartphones without being hooked up to the Internet through a traditional carrier. All you need is the radio frequency of your phone's bluetooth connection, and you can send and receive data over a mesh network from anyone in relatively close proximity—say, a person in the same neighborhood or office building. (Mesh networks can also be built around cheap wireless routers or roof antennae.)
"If you are trying to communicate between people who are nearby, you may be entirely off-grid and build a mesh of connections, say, within a stadium or a city square," Shalunov said. "In the same way that packets on the Internet go from node to node and reach its ultimate destination, it's the same thing but on a smaller scale. Instead, our packets go through other people's devices and reach their destination."
For a bit more technical detail, here's a five-minute video about how mesh networks could "revolutionize and democratize the way people share data" from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society:
For now, there's no nationwide device-to-device mesh network. So if you want to communicate with someone across the country, someone—but not everyone—in the mesh network will need to be connected to the Internet through a traditional provider. That's true locally, too, if you want the mesh network hooked up to the rest of the Internet. Mesh networks are more reliable in a crowd because devices can rely on one another—rather than each device trying to ping the same overburdened cell phone tower. "The important thing is we can use any of the Internet connections that anybody in that mesh network is connected to," Shalunov said. "So maybe you are connected to AT&T and I am connected to Comcast and my phone is on Verizon and there is a Sprint subscriber nearby. If any of these will let the traffic through, all of it will get through."
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Mesh networks have been around, at least theoretically, for at least as long as the Internet has existed.
"The original vision of the Internet was in fact a mesh," said Michael Liebhold, a fellow at the Institute for the Future. "Unfortunately, what has happened over the 20 or 30 years we've been working on the Internet, all the traffic ends up handled by a very small number of network carriers or cloud or service operators. There's a very small number of connection points... but they're highly vulnerable and they're being attacked from all directions now."