Do you remember what is was like to plug a phone cord into the back of your computer and click an icon to start the process of connecting to a “dial-up” connection? Connection speeds were a fraction of what they are now, but that didn’t matter at the time: you were connected to the internet! Sending and receiving messages with friends and colleagues… Researching information that previously might only be available in a library… The ability to be connected changed so many things about your day. From work to play and all points in between, connectivity to information, people, and data has had a profound impact on not just our daily lives, but how we view the world around us.
So it may come as a surprise that internet connectivity is coming full circle and might soon require virtually no hardwired connections. How is that possible? Simple: mesh networking. In its more basic sense, mesh networking means that nodes similar to wireless access points link together to provide access to the internet at large. And as long as one point or “node” on the network has a hardwired connection to the backbone of the internet, all of the devices in the network can provide robust network access.
From a technological perspective, mesh networks are both efficient and effective when it comes to putting cutting-edge connective technology to work. The nodes, which connect with each other using existing 802.11a, b, and g standards, are set up to auto-detect the fastest and most reliable way to send data from one point to another. If one transmission path becomes degraded or inoperable, the mesh network simply finds the next most efficient path of transport for the data and continues without interruption. Mesh networks also scale automatically to include new nodes without time-consuming or costly configuration, and the more nodes that are added to a network, the stronger the network becomes as more and more transmission paths become available for the network’s users. If a mesh network contains hundreds (or even thousands) or nodes, as well as a dozen or more hard-wired connections to the internet, users can expect a faster and more reliable connection than if they were on their own wired network.
The practical applications of such technology are difficult to overstate. Here are just a few of the ways that mesh networking can be used to expand coverage and connectivity:
- Covering entire cities with connectivity – Imagine the implications for public safety officials, traffic coordination, and the general public if wireless connectivity was ubiquitous in an urban area. From managing traffic lights, to coordinating police and ambulance responses, to simply allowing low-income neighborhoods to get online, wide-ranging connectivity means data can be transferred continuously to the benefit of everyone.
- Providing network capability for temporary or unconventional locations – From hurricanes to tornadoes, natural disasters can take an area offline for days or weeks on end. Mesh networks can be deployed easily in disaster areas to give support officials and personnel the connectivity they need to coordinate supply deliveries and execute rescue efforts.
- Cost savings for setting up a business network – Instead of paying for miles of CAT5 cable and then paying a technician to string it through the walls, a mesh network gives businesses and offices a way to deploy a reliable network without costly installation and equipment. New office construction costs can be reduced, as well, since networking costs won’t be required.
- Continuous connection of devices enabling workflow automation – From insulin pumps in hospitals to weather measuring instruments, continuous connectivity means that connected devices can be deployed without a hardline, leading to increases in data and information integral to the way we work.
- Reduced costs of mobile broadband – Most mobile devices can connect to the internet either through a carrier data plan or by accessing a wireless network. With an increase in mesh networks, mobile broadband networks will be taxed less heavily and burdened with only a fraction of the data traffic compared to today. This might mean lower costs for consumers, as well as increased quality of service when using a carrier’s mobile network for voice or SMS transmissions.
- Decentralized networks in developing countries – Many developing countries have limited (or no) internet access for citizens. The power of mesh networks rests in the fact that their effectiveness does not rely on a few providers. As a result, people in some countries that do not have access to the internet may well find a way to be connected via a mesh network. And since the network can scale and adapt as nodes are added and redacted, the only way to take a mesh network offline would be to remove every node on the network.
The implications for business are widespread. If connectivity is truly available anywhere, anytime, and at the highest possible speeds, then workflow automation and communications between people and devices (aka the “Internet of Things”) will be more prevalent than ever before. Instead of relying on wireless routers that need to be rebooted, configured, and managed, the mesh network will adapt to the needs of the environment and more easily scale with growth. Furthermore, network speeds and access will be decentralized and no longer subject to individual ISPs.
That said, the technology is still new and deployments are still few and far between. The primary challenge in deploying a mesh network comes from the fact that most of the wireless devices that can serve as nodes have a limited range. While this range will grow and allow mesh networks to spread for miles and miles, existing hardware makes deploying wide networks an ongoing challenge. However, quick development is coming. For example, both Apple and Google are beginning to add mesh-networking capabilities to iOS and Android, respectively. At the moment, mesh networks are more often deployed in response to a catastrophe or event on a small (and temporary) scale. In time, as technology develops, it is reasonable – and almost inevitable – that mesh networks will constitute a larger share of the connectivity spectrum.
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