In Crisis, Try a Phone-Powered Mesh Network

Mobile broadband is arguably the most empowering technology that's currently driving the cloud, smartphone, and app markets. Still, it's not feasible to cover every square inch of the planet with a fast wireless connection. So how does one communicate with others in an area without cellular coverage—or when governments request a shut down of network services? The answer may lie in phones that create a direct relay system to transmit voice or data.

Known as a mesh network, this approach enables a device to receive and retransmit signals, much as a router does in a home wireless network. Because voice quality is subpar, it is best-suited for emergency communication in remote areas outside of traditional network coverage. But peer-to-peer voice technology could improve as radios and software evolve. The scenario reminds me of one of my first Skype call back in 2004. Filled with delays and echoes, it was nonetheless a workable communication. Use Skype now to see how quickly the technology has been refined and improved.

While carriers control much of the handset experience and have little or no incentive to foster development of a communications technology that bypasses their networks, I'd like to see mesh-network research continue. Think of the current situation in Egypt, where protests, tweets, and phone calls have put the region front and center on the world stage, prompting the Egyptian government to effectively shut down Internet access throughout the country.

Imagine a Cellular Voice Blackout

That's just one step short of closing down cellular voice communications. Should that happen, too, phones that can enable direct communication through a handset relay system would let families, emergency crews, and others avoid a total communications blackout. Data could be routed through such mesh networks, too, ensuring that tweets and Web services keep flowing. While many voice and data networks remain separate today, the rise of 4G networks will eventually bring voice traffic over the Web, so future Internet shut-downs could stop voice traffic as well.

Will mesh or peer-to-peer technologies ever completely replace traditional networks for voice—or data, for that matter? That's highly unlikely because of numerous corporate, legal, and technological obstacles. Should such relay services and software solutions continue to be regarded as backup plans? I think so. I'm willing to bet that a fair number of people in Egypt would agree.

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