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Remember the early days of wireless routers, when every city street-corner was home to a dozen unsecured WiFi connections? That was hardly an ideal (or safe) state of affairs, but it did feel rather nice and neighbourly at times, and there was a certain sadness in watching all the open networks get locked down over the years. Today we’re looking at Meta Mesh, a project that aims to help communities recapture the good parts of those glory days in a fair, secure and superior manner by building their own distributed bandwidth-sharing networks with ease.
Mesh networking is a powerful idea, and one that embodies the spirit of distributed design and open interconnection that underpins the internet. The basic idea is that by uniting a community on a shared network with no central access point, you can share the huge amounts of unused and inefficiently allocated bandwidth that gets paid for and wasted every day. ISPs, after all, are not doing a good job (or any kind of job) at this allocation: power users pay exorbitant fees and are viewed by ISPs as a problem, low-income users have few if any options for affordable service, and the average person pays for far more bandwidth than they ever use. Few cities can or will offer municipal wi-fi, and those that try often do a pretty poor job of it.
A mesh network lets a community fix all that on its own. The average home or business now has a bunch of powerful wireless networking equipment sitting in a corner to serve a handful of computers and devices — but what if those homes and businesses used that equipment to connect to each other, to turn all their little networks into one big one and extend it throughout the city? The possibilities are huge.
If there’s one key reason this isn’t already happening in most major cities, it’s that it isn’t necessarily easy to do. That’s what Meta Mesh aims to change by offering a complete guide to setting up mesh networks without a lot of technical expertise, and a web store where people can purchase preconfigured equipment. The necessary gear isn’t expensive, and hasn’t been for a long time — removing the technical barriers to finding and setting up that gear changes mesh networks from complex projects into simple solutions.
Bandwidth sharing is a critical function of mesh networks, and might be their “killer app” as it were — but the possibilities actually extend far beyond that, which is something I wish Meta Mesh was discussing more. Think of all the other things a community could do with its own ad-hoc network: local versions of geographically-linked services from Craigslist to Uber to Tinder; neighbourhood cryptocurrencies and other tools built on a local blockchain ledger; peer-to-peer sharing that never touches the wider internet. Imagine the possibilities when these networks are extendable and bridgeable. Mesh networks won’t just revolutionize how we connect to the internet — they are poised to become a powerful and vibrant part of the the global information network in their own right.
Meta Mesh is a great first step, but I worry that the pitch’s focus on bandwidth-sharing makes this sound exclusively like a charitable endeavour, when in fact it’s so much more.
Of course, there’s little doubt that ISPs will react badly to this. The aforementioned shift from mostly open to mostly locked-down home WiFi networks — though ultimately a good thing for security’s sake — didn’t happen so rapidly because people started learning about security: it happened because ISPs gave up on their short-lived crusade to stop customers using wireless routers entirely, and started supplying pre-secured ones themselves. You can expect them to be just as crafty in attempting to prevent this kind of bandwidth-sharing too: first by enforcing their anti-sharing terms of service, then if that fails by attempting to take control of the mesh networking world and milk it for every penny (destroying its purpose in the process). It will be a frustrating battle, but one that ISPs are no longer in a position to easily win as more and more people are waking up to the fact that broadband service in this part of the world sucks.
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