How Phone-Powered Mesh Networks Could Help in Egypt

Egyptian protests by Muhammed Ghafari

Mobile broadband is arguably the most empowering technology that’s currently driving the cloud, smartphone and app markets, but it’s simply 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 any cellular coverage, or when governments request a shut down of network services? The answer may lie within phones that create a direct relay system to transmit voice or data.

This approach is called a mesh network, which enables a device to both receive and retransmit signals, much like a router does in home wireless network. The below video from ABC News Adelaide shows the mesh network in action on basic Android handsets, with researchers communicating to each other by voice, even though there are no cellular towers in range.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K819ggBvkU0]

You can easily tell in the video spot that the voice quality is sub-par and therefore, best suited for emergency communication in remote areas outside of traditional network coverage. But the peer-to-peer voice technology could improve as radios and software continue to evolve. The scenario reminds me of one of my first Skype calls back in 2004 — ironically, to someone in Australia — the call was filled with delays and echos, but still usable. Just use Skype now to see how the technology has been refined and improved.

While carriers control much of the handset experience and have little to no incentive to trying to mature a communications technology that bypasses their networks, I’d like to see such mesh network research efforts 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 and have caused the Egyptian government to effectively shut down Internet access in the country.

That’s just one step short of closing down cellular voice communications. In an extreme case such as that, phones that can enable direct communication through a handset relay system would enable families, emergency crews and others to avoid a total communications black-out. Data too could be routed through such mesh networks, ensuring that tweets and web services continue to flow. And while many voice and data networks are still separate today, the rise of 4G networks will eventually bring voice traffic over the web too, so any future Internet shut-downs could impact voice calls.

Will mesh or peer-to-peer technologies completely replace traditional networks for voice, or data, for that matter? That’s highly unlikely due to many corporate, legal and technological challenges. But should such relay services and software solutions continue to be looked at as backup plans? I’d say yes, and I’m willing to bet a fair number of people in Egypt right now would agree.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari

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