In Havana, people use the offline network. to communicate with each other, play games and share files despite widespread internet censorship in Cuba. This ad hoc network, called the mesh network, has amazed many people and many are wondering if it represents the future of the Internet. Let’s take a look.

What is a mesh network?

A mesh network is a network in which each node (computer, phone, or tablet) serves as a repeater. routing data between its peers. Snet, Havana’s mesh network, is a great example. Its 9,000 users use a combination of broadband cables and powerful Wi-Fi antennas to connect to send email, share files and play games with each other, without an external Internet connection.

Some nodes also have internet connections, and people with those connections can download content from the internet and share it on meshnet (Snet has a downloaded copy of Wikipedia for example). The mesh network in Sayada, Tunisia also contains maps of the city, free books, and secure communication apps.

Like Snet, the Tunisian mesh network is not connected to the wider Internet (although its downloaded copy of Wikipedia is also presumably updated from time to time). The figure below shows what a wireless mesh network with Internet connectivity might look like (click to enlarge).

wireless mesh-networks

One of the things that makes mesh networks different from the networks we’re more familiar with is that connections can take multiple hops across other mesh nodes. On the Internet, if two people want to receive information from the same site, they both receive information directly from that site via a wired connection, no matter where they are. In a mesh network, information from the target server can be transmitted through the first node and to the second node, eliminating the need for a wired connection on the second computer.

Thus, one Internet connection can be used by several different users, even if they cannot use the same wired connection. Red Hook, a Brooklyn area, used a mesh network to provide satellite internet connectivity to residents after Hurricane Sandy disrupted standard internet and cell networks.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Mesh Networks

Obviously, being able to share an Internet connection between multiple computers is a huge advantage when it’s not possible to get wired Internet access due to expensive hardware or severe government restrictions. Even when an internet connection is not available, being able to communicate with other users using only wireless or semi-wireless means is extremely useful. These networks can often be set up very quickly and cost-effectively with just a few routers to get started.

If networks are carefully structured, they can also be quite resistant to snooping—while the NSA and GCHQ can easily control Internet connectivity, they actually need to infiltrate the hardware network in order to spy on it. This resistance to tracking is one reason the FireChat mobile app, which turns cell phones into mesh nodes, is widely used in Hong Kong and other areas where protests are taking place and internet connections are fuzzy.

hong kong phones

One significant advantage of mesh networks is that they are highly adaptable. If one of the connections is down, the network can simply redirect traffic through another set of nodes to establish a connection. The internet is actually quite fragile right now. In 2011, all of Armenia lost access to the Internet when a Georgian woman cut a shovel with a fiber optic cable. The future Internet based on mesh networks will be much more resilient to these kinds of failures.

This is due to one of the disadvantages of mesh networks, at least in their current form: routing data through multiple nodes can result in quite large delays. If the information from the server has to go through five or six hops to get to the user, this can significantly increase the loading time of the site. This is the same reason why using Tor may slow down browsing.

It is because of this speed that many are wondering if a grid that is larger than the size of a small town would not be too speed-limited. The 9,000 people across Havana don’t have many problems, but going beyond that can create some difficulties. This is especially true if the mesh network supports connections to the Internet, in which case one or a small number of wired connections may encounter a large number of requirements, and then have to use bypass connections through several other nodes.

For mesh networks to scale in size and performance to compete with the traditional centralized Internet, better routing and caching algorithms are needed to make content loading fast and efficient for end users.

The future of mesh networks

Today, most mesh networks are specialized networks designed to solve specific problems in a small area. But some people and organizations are thinking a lot about how to use grid networks for grander purposes.

The mesh networks currently in use in Cuba and Tunisia show that this technology holds great promise. The US government is investigating this technology to extend wireless Internet connections to areas with poor reception — a project is currently underway in Detroit using receivers similar to the one shown below. And OpenGarden, the creator of FireChat, is looking to further expand its operations. Similarly, grid networks are likely to be needed for projects such as Google’s balloon-based internet initiative, as the balloons will constantly move relative to each other and their connections are likely to be unpredictable and random.


One interesting application that is currently being rolled out is the use of mesh networks to transmit electricity and gas meter readings from one house to another, etc., along the line until it reaches the utility company. The use of a mesh network means no meter readers are required and the meters do not need to be connected to the internet.

One Laptop per Child Program One Laptop per Child also uses mesh networks—each laptop is networked so kids can share files without an internet connection.

Although some people think much more. NASA, Google, and DARPA are all looking into the operation of latency-tolerant networks in the form of a connection, where dropping the connection does not cause the same problems as it does today. Combining this form of networks with a mesh network could eventually lead to an interplanetary network. A research base on Mars could potentially use a mesh network of satellites or other relay stations to create a connection to Earth. (Obviously, long distances would result in very long delays, but a combination of delay-tolerant technology and mesh networks could make this possible.)

While mesh networks have some limiting factors that keep them out of the spotlight, the growing number of places where they have been successfully used shows that the technology holds great promise. If researchers can find a way to speed up the wireless speeds of these networks, it could open the door to a whole new way to connect people around the world.

What mesh network applications do you like? Do you have experience with this type of networks? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credit: Global mesh Via Shutterstock, Johnson et al. Citobun, Robo56 via Wikimedia Commons.

Похожие записи