Mesh networks could bridge the gap between internet capacity and demand

Despite the billions of dollars spent every year on internet infrastructure, the market and our mobile lifestyle are increasing the gap between capacity and demand. Consumers often face slow data connections or high prices for broadband internet access…when it is available. This problem may only increase as manufacturers of mobile phones, tablets, TVs, cars and kitchen appliances continue to hop on the internet connectivity bandwagon.

According to IDC’s research, in the next three years at least five billion new mobile devices will try to connect to the internet and to one another — and that’s not even counting the new “things” of the internet of things.

As Google and Facebook look to drones, balloons and satellites to deliver the internet to the world, it’s worth remembering that one of the most powerful pieces in the quest for global internet access isn’t up in the sky. It’s down in our pockets.

The humble smartphone’s ease of use, connectivity and widespread adoption puts it in a good position to bring reliable internet access to everyone. Considering that most smartphones already have the components to act as routers, one can imagine a new generation of networks, where each device becomes an active part of the network.

Mesh networks, as they’re called, are built out of a patchwork of wireless-enabled devices — smartphones, tablets, computers, even wearable devices that connect with one another directly in a peer-to-peer mode. These networks configure the data-sharing capabilities within those devices, so that the devices can share and receive not just data, but the connection itself, becoming pieces of the network’s piping. A group of devices linked along a mesh network becomes an incredibly powerful intranet. And if one of the network devices connects to the internet, they can share that access across all the other devices as well. It’s like crowdsourcing the network.

Mesh networks aren’t hard to create. In Greece, about 1,000 people linked their rooftop Wi-Fi antennae to create a completely off-the-grid internet — over a connection that delivers at an astounding 150 MBps — complete with blogs, a classified site akin to Craigslist and streaming movies. Computer owners in rural Spain, fed up with being ignored by major ISPs, took matters into their own hands to create Guifi, a mesh network boasting 21,000 members.

Since mesh networks are easy to create, they’re prime candidates for bringing connections to the world’s most internet-poor regions. Take the case of Daniel Hastings, an American teacher in Somaliland. One of Africa’s most desolate regions, Somaliland had no fiber optic cable as of the end of 2013, and yet Hastings was able to deliver quality internet connectivity to his school via a mesh network he essentially built on his own.

There’s another critical advantage: mesh networks are decentralized. Since every device in the network is a node, the removal of any one device won’t break the system. Mesh networks remain reliable even in a natural disaster. For example, a mesh network was critical in reintroducing network connectivity in Red Hook, Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy.

Decentralization also gives mesh networks a particular advantage in areas where government is the critical barrier to internet access. Repressive regimes manipulate the web via ISPs. They command the pipes to control access and information (undoubtedly part of the reason North Korea only has one ISP). Mesh networks sidestep that problem by creating a system that has a limitless number of nodes and no central management. It’s possible to take control of cable-delivered broadband, or even to jam signals from drones or balloons. Overtaking a sprawling network of millions of mobile devices is a far harder task.

The idea gained enormous credence in 2011, when the Egyptian government shut down the country’s internet access during the Arab Spring. In response, hacktivists banded together to form the Open Mesh Project, a global organization dedicated to building mesh networks that governments couldn’t destroy.

But I’m not just talking about the developing world, which is expected to have more mobile internet users than the developed one this year. I’m talking about building networks out of our smartphones everywhere. In 2014, creating a mesh network is easier than ever. All it takes is software.

This software is already here. You may get it from an app developer, an operator or the manufacturer of your device. As this happens, operators can offload huge amounts of data traffic through the least expensive and most efficient off-ramps allowing them to satisfy the demand while realizing the ROI on their heavy investments. Device manufacturers and app developers can solve network discontinuity issues. End-users get better, faster and more reliable internet access. Everyone benefits from more reliable and faster connectivity. It is a win-win-win.

Micha Benoliel is the CEO and co-founder of Open Garden, the developer of mesh networking apps that connect over five million people worldwide. Open Garden also powers the mesh-network technology in One Laptop Per Child’s XO Tablet.