How Wireless Mesh Networks will help bridge the digital divide

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By: Alan Omnet, World Mobile COO

Mesh networks have been around since military experiments in the 1980s, and they became the foundation of the Internet.

However, Wireless Mesh Networks (WMNs) also now appear to be moving from adolescence to maturity as they become adopted into people’s homes to solve issues of patchy coverage and seamless access. Essentially a WMN is a set of devices that work together with no cables to send and receive information with no need for centralised control.

This network topology helps solve many current issues and may provide a pathway to our future desires for Augmented Reality, automated cars, Smart Cities and the Internet of Things (IoT). In conjunction with blockchain technology, it is also the key to providing access to the Internet for the 3.4bn people who currently have no access.

Why our current mobile infrastructure isn’t enough

We have become too reliant on centralised mobile operators and internet providers.

“When over 30m customers were affected by a loss of service by O2, people’s livelihoods were impacted and transport networks ground to a halt. It became abundantly clear we need a better architecture.”

Who has experienced black spots for mobile coverage? It can be difficult to get a good signal in both city centres and rural communities. Perhaps surprisingly, 60% of mobile internet traffic is delivered through home and public Wi-Fi and not through the mobile operator GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks. The mobile network infrastructure of today has huge issues keeping up with consumers' insatiable demand for data. Hopes for 5G resolving coverage issues are distant and face significant hurdles in regulation, spectrum allocation, cost structure and hardware compatibility.

How can WMNs change this?

Although WMNs may not be the answer to all issues we currently have in gaining better access to the Internet, it is highly likely that they will become an integral part of what is required to make it a whole lot better.

With WMNs, there is no single point of failure—where there is a network outage, the network will auto route traffic over a different part of the network. Nodes on the network have intelligence built in to distribute the traffic over alternative routes. The network will self heal and exclude any failed nodes on the network.

“It has been demonstrated that there are large cost savings to be achieved with the implementation of WMNs in an increasing number of scenarios. The ability to provide multi radio nodes and improved routing algorithms have helped to overcome early WMN bottlenecks.”

WMNs can offer a single network over a large area, providing a single login and seamless connectivity. They also have the benefit of aggregating the total bandwidth available in cases of high demand. In many applications, speed is increased due to the fact that not all packets need to return to a central server.

Wireless Mesh Networks use cases

There are particular use cases for WMNs that will benefit greatly from the advanced versions of this technology. As technology advances with the advent of better security with Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) and better capacity and density with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), these mesh networks will become more robust and reliable in the very near future.

Community Mesh Networks

“Community Mesh Networks are becoming more widespread due to factors such as net neutrality, lack of coverage and large consumer demand. Places where these networks are being implemented include metro networks, in-building coverage and rural or developing world populations.”

However, to really advance the use of these networks, key factors need to be resolved in parallel. There needs to be better range and density (improved in Wi-Fi 6), common standards (either Open Source or Industry Standards such as EasyMesh) and also a way for communities to manage the economic model of their network (blockchain).

IoT networks

WMNs can provide excellent flexibility for IoT networks. Adding new nodes to the network for a larger coverage area is as simple as introducing the device within range of the existing nodes on the network. This can reduce costs of cabling, equipment and centralised infrastructure. It can also reduce power consumption required as there is less requirement for long-range radios due to the range requirement only needing to be to the nearest node instead of a distant hub or base station.

Smart cities

“Smart cities of the future revolve around a secure and highly resilient communications network that must enable real-time monitoring of infrastructure, transport, utilities and buildings. Only with a distributed mesh network can the dependency on centralised control be enabled to provide a fast response to environmental issues, natural disasters and terror attacks.”

Other use cases for WMNs include agriculture, healthcare and transport networks which would all benefit from the enhanced coverage and reliability of such solutions.

Bringing blockchain and Wireless Mesh Networks together

One reason why previous attempts at community networks have not succeeded is the lack of commercial management and incentive structure. These organisational structures were neither automated nor secure from fraudulent or disruptive attacks.

With the advent of blockchain technology, a solution is now both feasible and scalable to meet the needs of community networks. It enables a reward mechanism that can incentivise their use and growth. Utilising a distributed ledger technology, blockchain will provide an immutable record of what activity takes place over the WMN at each node.

“Smart contracts can be written to provide the agreements between all owners and users of the network to ensure node operators are rewarded fairly for their contribution to the network.”

The blockchain layer would also enable the security and privacy required to operate a trustless network allowing users to have an assurance that they are not reliant on a third party that may be open to hacking attacks or access to their personal data.

A blockchain based global WMN could enable a global solution to the current disparate networks that are appearing across the world. The resulting cheaper censorship-resistant network would open access to the Internet to more people than ever before.

At World Mobile, it’s our mission to connect the unconnected. Thousands of big tech companies have tried, or are still trying, to solve this massive problem, but it hasn’t happened. Almost half the global population is still not connected. Blockchain is a game-changer, but other telecoms operators were trying to just slot it into the current infrastructure, which isn’t enough. We’re looking at the bigger picture, rebuilding the whole industry and truly bridging the digital divide.

Are you interested in helping connect the unconnected? Learn how you can join our mesh network and earn rewards.

Alan Omnet
Alan has been a successful telecoms entrepreneur for over two decades. Having developed and managed branded telecoms services for over 100 companies including American Express, Hertz and Virgin, he’s also founded multiple businesses himself including a global wholesale carrier.