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.
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."
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."
For Liebhold, who uses a mesh network to connect to the Internet at home, mesh networking isn't a way to "reinvent the web," but the natural next step toward reclaiming the kind of Internet people want. It's a way of "connecting everybody in the world and bypassing the original Internet, which is struggling in governance, cyber crime, data mining, pervasive passive surveillance, and massive hacks."
And with smartphone ownership climbing—more than half of Americans now have smartphones, according to Pew Research Center's latest numbers—these kinds of networks are easier than ever to roll out. One of the world's best known mesh networks is in Athens, where some 2,000 residents are connected via a mesh of rooftop antennae called the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. (It's faster than your typical speedy home internet connection in the United States, delivering about 150 Mbs of data per second, according to Mother Jones.)
A mesh network in Brooklyn got national attention when it remained functional during Hurricane Sandy, which knocked out regular Internet and cell service in the area. Kansas City has the KC Freedom Network. Detroit has DetroitCONNECTED.
It makes sense that mesh networking seems to be eking its way into the mainstream in the United States at a time when the enormous scope of data mining and government surveillance is becoming more clear. Many advocates for mesh networking talk about an Internet that's by and for the people, and the importance of being able to go online without being followed. There's some irony in the timing of all of this, too. The United States government has spent millions of dollars on the creation of shadow mesh networks—which are as easy to set up as distributing cheap wireless routers—to help people in other countries get around the Internet infrastructure of their repressive governments, according to The New York Times.
In other words, while the NSA collects information about American citizens, the State Department is helping citizens in other countries evade surveillance by their governments. Here's how Ben Scott, a former State Department official, put it in a conversation with The New York Times earlier this year: “It is in my mind one of the great, unreported ironies of the first Obama administration.”
Back in the States, mesh networking is emerging as something of a novelty. In most places, such networks are seen more as experiments than necessary infrastructure. The app Firechat, for instance, is a chat client that runs on a combination of mesh networking and wifi. It's marketed as a way stay in touch with people in close proximity when you don't have cell service—like communicating with a friend two tents over while you're on a camping trip.
Chats are open to anyone nearby, though when I connect to Firechat in Washington, D.C., there's not much going on. (Along with topics-based threads like "Football," and "Video Games," there is also an "Everyone" chat which connects you to people using Firechat all over the world.) Here's an example of the kind of conversation going on in Firechat's football thread:
It has the feeling of early AOL chatrooms from the mid-1990s—a bit haphazard, anonymous, random. That's not a bad thing—the opportunity to chat with strangers is what appeals to some Firechat users, they told me—but it's a good reminder that mesh networking has a long, long way to go if it is indeed to become a viable alternative for the current infrastructure of the Internet. Even many of the people who understand mesh networking see it as a diversion, a complement to the "real Internet." And that's the thing about mesh networks: They're really only as good as the people who are willing to join them. And you need people for the network to function.
This is why groups like Commotion and The Free Network Foundation distribute software and information to teach people about mesh networking. From the foundation's website: "This is not going to happen overnight: it will be gradual, and from the inside. It is already happening, and we view its continuation and evolution as inevitable."
Elsewhere, people are trying to incentivize the switch to mesh. The mesh networking protocol Open Libernet says it was inspired by Bitcoin to figure out a way to make people feel like they get something in exchange for using the network. "The concept is simple," Open Libernet explains on its site, "the more traffic you help route efficiently, the more traffic you earn for your own consumption. This serves to limit abuse, encourage the community to actively expand and maintain the network, and persuade people to join... And naturally, traffic can be earned, transferred, donated or sold, making it a valuable commodity, akin to a currency."
Advocates for mesh networking maintain it's only a matter of time before mesh infrastructure expands beyond niche communities. "They are inevitable, unstoppable, unbreakable," Shalunov told me. "We all have the power to change the future of the Internet. It is happening now."
Mesh networks also reflect the idea that maybe the next big Internet revolution won't be one thing. The infrastructure of a mesh network is, in a sense, a physical manifestation of the fragmented nature of the Internet as we know it.
"This idea of this great unifying internet is a little bit of an early miss because I think it's going to continue to fragment in many, many ways," said the Institute for the Future's Liebhold. "The actual governance of the Internet is in wild turmoil right now. There's turmoil over who should govern then Internet and how—the chaotic management of this thing. So, meanwhile, let's pass messages around the classroom without the teacher getting them."