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Summary:

The architecture of our mobile networks is going to have to change to keep up with more people and devices, and crowdfunded options like the Serval Project and BRCK may show us a path forward.

Crowdsourcing Connectivity OpenGarden Mesh
photo: Open Garden

Building mobile networks isn’t for wimps. It takes billions of dollars in spectrum assets, physical equipment and people with the expertise to ensure that calls and data requests go through every time. But a growing number of projects are seeking funding to build open networks on the cheap — and outside of government and carrier manipulation. Efforts such as the Serval Project, Open Garden and even the BRCK are all trying to build connectivity in places where it’s unavailable, unreliable or even compromised — and some are doing it via crowd funding.

The Serval Project is the latest of these, launching with an Indiegogo campaign last week seeking $300,000 to build a mesh extender network. The Serval Project is open source software for handsets that allows them to directly link to each other to pass messages and files. While it doesn’t talk to the broader internet, people within the network can use the software to communicate data between their handsets. It’s like a walkie-talkie for data of sorts.

The mesh extender they are trying to build would sit in key locations and boost the radius of the mesh over which these phones running the Serval software can communicate. Outside of setting up networks where ones weren’t before, these networks can also relieve congestion on traditional cell networks. For example, creating a neighborhood mesh could allow people to share data and make calls locally without hopping onto the public internet.

For talking to the internet at large you’d need something like the Brck, which was created by a non-profit called Ushahidi and launched on Kickstarter in June. The project was a battery plus a variety of radios (Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G) plus Ethernet, so a person could get connectivity even in tough conditions when internet access isn’t reliable. The idea behind BRCK was connecting people in third-world situations, but BRCK might be useful as a backhaul of last resort for a Serval mesh.

As we’ve covered before , to recreate a functioning open source mobile network requires several pieces, but many of those pieces are in various stages of development and adoption. For example, Commotion, which is a Wi-Fi-based mesh network technology that might work in conjunction with Serval. It doesn’t have a Kickstarter or Indigogo campaign, but does have grant funding and a testbed in Detroit.

Meanwhile Open Garden, which is another software project that wants to create a mesh network of connected devices, has raised outside investment and is trying to get its software on Google Glass. The goal would be to turn each Glass into a node on its mesh network. Aside from bypassing the current wireless infrastructure or using it as a last resort, these projects are all thinking about new ways to create paths to the internet.

When one person was calling another person, networks had to be structured one way. Now that a phone or an increasing number of other devices can call either people or servers, we need to think about how to structure networks a different way. These projects might have started with third-world countries or war zones in mind, but as more devices hop online, these mesh networks make a lot of sense.

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