Lately, there has been a lot of media attention about ending net neutrality, which would provide internet service providers (ISPs) with tremendous power to determine speed and bandwidth of service to subscribers. While some are optimistic about this development, there is a large contingent that believes anti-net neutrality will result in a “slow death” for the internet.
For the opponents, there is a glimmer of hope in the trend toward decentralization utilizing mesh networks and blockchain that is challenging the anti-net neutrality movement. So, how does a mesh network and blockchain work?
Mesh networks – the internet built by people, for people. Mesh networks are decentralized peer-to-peer (P2P) networks with individually controlled links, which are typically wireless. They are built on the concept that each device can act as both router and storage.
Mesh networks are currently popular in cities with poor infrastructures, such as Detroit, Michigan. One Detroit mesh community used very basic infrastructure to develop Wi-Fi connectivity to areas where it’s tough for ISPs to reach. (See Figure 1.) A church served as the Wi-Fi hub while various access points were created to provide bandwidth to remote areas.
Mesh networks serve a variety of purposes that traditional ISPs cannot. For instance, these networks are very useful when normal service fails due to blackouts and internet outage caused by such things as heat waves. When Chinese authorities banned social media platforms like Instagram, thousands of protestors in Hong Kong took to the streets where they used a mesh-like networked app called Firechat that they downloaded to their devices to communicate over Bluetooth without any government monitoring.
Figure 1. How an ad-hoc mesh network functions using Wi-Fi and fiber optics
What role does blockchain play? Before answering the question, let’s discuss how businesses use mesh networks.
Let’s say there is a bank branch that maintains a ledger for all account holders. Mr. Jones, a bank employee at the branch, can access the ledger anytime and add, remove or change any transaction. Nobody besides Mr. Jones would ever know about the change, except the account holder, but only after Mr. Jones made the change.
You might say this is hypothetical because you get text messages which makes you “secure.” That may be true but think about the transaction from the point of view of storage. The information is centralized, so a very limited number of people have access. What if one of them decides to modify something in the centralized database? Wouldn’t it not be better if, in the case of a modification, everyone with access to the account gets a notice of it at the time of the transaction so immediate action can be taken if need be?
When many people are responsible for maintaining the ledger, illegal actions becomes hard to execute. This is the concept at the core of blockchain. Each piece of information (transaction) is a block (record) that is connected to the next block with a unique ID (transaction number) and so on. All participants in the blockchain monitor and approve every transaction. Hence, a blockchain (ledger) is formed, and everyone in the ecosystem (e.g., a bank branch) has a copy of the blockchain. So if someone modifies one block—say, Mr. Jones—others will notice immediately and can invalidate the entire blockchain if necessary.
Mesh networks are in-line with blockchain as both are decentralized, meaning authority and control are shared by the participants. Instead of one ISP, everyone in the network manages the internet that they are sharing. There is no boss or controlling authority.
Returning to the banking example, consider a case where two big banks agree on the inter-bank lending rates between them to suit their needs. Bank One gives Bank Two a super low rate because they do business together. Now, think of the same case with a trader who holds an influential position and could partner with multiple banks. Collectively, the trader and the banks form a collective that gives the trader a very low lending rate for his personal gains. This adjustment is indeed possible without the market knowing who made the change or why it was made.
Such a transaction can be prevented by making all transactions transparent to all participants.
Consider that an algorithm is created that calculates the lending rate based on supply and demand and not personal relationships between traders at banks. If every transaction that applied the algorithm were transparent to all participating banks, the likelihood of an errant trader getting a sub-market rate on a loan would be next to impossible. Such a decentralized system would need confirmation from all participating parties and not just a few controllers.
Combined, the power of decentralization that is embedded in both blockchain and mesh networks ensures trusted transactions.
Together, mesh networks and blockchain are on the front lines of censorship resistance. There are a number of start-ups making use of blockchain in their mesh networks, such as Ammbr and RightMesh. RightMesh is leveraging P2P connectivity using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct, which are available by default on even the cheapest smartphones. It uses Ethereum blockchain ID where each user in the network has a valid and unique ID. A user’s ID is verifiable only to people they agree to share their identity with. Therefore, mesh plus blockchain equals a trusted network.
In today’s internet, nobody should be the boss. That means you can be both a giver (ISP) and a taker (subscriber) at the same time. There should be a fee associated with giving and a charge for taking. This way the value transacted by the participants in the mesh and blockchain community stays within the community.
This value is not money but mesh tokens that act like digital incentives for both users and providers that, in turn, help maintain reliability and quality of service. For instance, the token system—or tokenomy—can include such services as offering up storage to cache ads, apps and static content that can be distributed. Think of it as an Airbnb for data and the internet in a decentralized, egalitarian way. Tokenomy is a way for settling payments among individual participants in a mesh.
So far so good, but how do mesh networks scale? Will they ever compete regular ISPs for providing bandwidth? Whenever a node is added to the mesh, the area bandwidth suffers a hit. For example, Ammbr has an Ammbr mesh router that segregates client traffic and backhauling connections. RightMesh doesn’t require any hardware, the devices in the network itself make up the infrastructure. It is an open-source architecture and the Software Development Kit(SDK) lets users create mesh-supported apps.
Is it really the way to go?
The jury is still out on the long-term viability of blockchain-based mesh networks. But the concept of distributed, decentralized information is slowly gaining attention and adherents, especially with the rise of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies being integrated into the blockchain model. Still, the market is very volatile and the appetite for broad-based adoption is doubtful anytime soon.
However, mesh networks powered by blockchain would be a game-changer, especially if net neutrality proponents gain the upper hand and small and mid-sized cities continue to suffer from intermittent internet service, slow speeds and poor bandwidth. Mozilla recently created a wireless challenge to promote this. It will be exciting to see if and how a decentralized internet emerges in the coming years.