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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."