openmeshIt’s long been a truism of the net that free information flow and freedom have a lot to do with each other. You see it in cases like the recent revolution in Egypt where the Egyptian government tried to stifle dissent by shutting off the Internet, and again in the current situation in Libya. E-books and other long-form digital reading matter are one point on that information spectrum, but so are forms as small as tweets or as large as digital video broadcasts.

TechCrunch has an interesting post by guest author Shervin Pishevar, founder of the OpenMesh Project, in which he talks about that project’s genesis and goals. Pishevar talks about discussing information freedom with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January of 2010, then taking part in passing along information from Egypt in January 2011.

I was staying up for days sharing and tweeting information as they happened. I had two close personal friends of mine in Egypt who were passing me information when they could. The day Egypt blocked the internet and mobile networks my mind went back to what I had said to Secretary Clinton. The only line of defense against government filtering and blocking their citizens from freely communicating and coordinating via communication networks was to create a new line of communications technologies that governments would find hard to block: Ad hoc wireless mesh networks. I called the idea OpenMesh and tweeted it.

Shortly, he was in touch with volunteers who were willing to turn the idea into a reality, and a company that was willing to kick in the designs for a tiny mobile router that could be hidden in a pocket and manufactured at a cost of $90 per unit.

The idea is to create mesh networks between people with computers or other wifi-connected devices and others with these pocket-sized routers, so the information can hop along until it can find someone near enough an uplink to the outside world to get the information through.

Open Mesh networking is a type of networking wherein each connected node in the network may act as an independent router or “smart” device, regardless of whether it has an Internet connection or not. Mesh networks are incredibly robust, with continuous connections that can reconfigure around broken or blocked paths by “hopping” from node to node until the destination is reached, such as another device on the network or connecting to an Internet back haul. When there is local Internet available, they can amplify the number of people who can connect to it. When there isn’t, mesh networks can allow people to communicate with each other in the event that other forms of electronic communication are broken down. Devices consist of most wifi enabled computers and run on existing Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, and Linux systems along with iPhone and Android mobile devices. An open source mesh network further offers a scalable solution that retains low costs while avoiding path dependencies and vendor lock-in. Combined with open hardware, these networks facilitate long-term maintenance flexibility and improvements.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is the same type of networking technology that the OLPC XO-1 was equipped with, to network together the students equipped with them and provide network access to all even if only a few were near the uplink to the outside world. And as the OpenMesh Project demonstrates, the idea has potential outside the field of only education. I wish them the best of luck.

Of course, this is just the beginning. As the technology improves—and getting it into widespread use will drive improvement—we could be on the way to the sort of everything-is-networked future depicted in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End. Won’t that be an interesting world to live in? Hopefully once such widespread information to access becomes available, it will be harder for tyrants to keep their people down. (Of course, they’ll probably still find ways anyway, but we can dream, right?)


  1. If you really want to this to take off, get some of the phone manufacturers to build it into their mobiles. It doesn’t need to be on all the time, but be there as a backup operation mode for when the local cell towers go down. This way you don’t have to spread the mesh – it’s already out there.

    This sort of thing would also be useful for major disaster areas, not just government crackdowns. I’m sort of surprised it hasn’t been pushed before, for this very reason.

  2. I’d be delighted to see mesh networks get further development, but don’t forget that they have some inherent weaknesses.

    1. They can’t jump gaps wider than the limited range of WiFi. They will work inside a city but not between cities. That allows the government to move against protests city by city. Use the army to crush one city then move on to the next.

    2. All that hopping around looking for connections is wasteful. For A to reach B, hundreds of active links may be required. That’s fine if A only needs to talk with B. But in the real world, with most means of communication shut down, everyone in the mesh will be messaging constantly, particularly when the message they sent a friend across town doesn’t get an immediate response like it does with their cell phone. That’s why large two-way radio networks typically have a net control and why net discipline is so important.

    3. Following up on #2, an Open Mesh’s very openness would make it easy to jam. The government would only need to seed the city with its own innocent-appearing open messaging devices, which would generate excessive traffic (jamming up the system like the USSR did Radio Free Europe), create bogus messages, (confusing protest leaders), or serve as a message black hole, claiming to have received and passed on a message but actually trashing it. There are techniques to deal with those problems, but those techniques have to be prepared in advance. In a repressive society, that’s not easy to do.

    Finally, don’t forget that in many situations the communications link that matters most is the flow out of the country to draw international support. Long distance telephone calls leaving a country is usually easier to shut down than Internet is within a country, so it can almost be assumed that a threatened regime would do that. Sat phones would work, but they’re so expensive, it’s unlikely there would be many of them. I also suspect that repressive governments, concerned about spies, already have the technology to locate sat phones.

    One option I’ve yet to see written about is amateur radio, particularly using a digital technique called PSK31 (described on Wikipedia). Low-power transceivers for PSK31 can be homemade inexpensively. The digital processing to turn a signal into data can run on a PC or laptop and even smart phones. Messages can be prepared in advance and sent very quickly, at about 50 wpm. And the signal processing techniques mean that even a weak signal can be copied.

    Finally, because you’re dealing with trained radio operators (not a chat-crazy mob), much of the confusion that an open mesh generates isn’t a problem. For messages from the leadership to the rank and file, messages could travel outside the country via a means like amateur radio. They could then be broadcast back into the country either openly (for mass protests) or using a prearranged code (for smaller groups), like that the BBC used for resistance groups during WWII.

    Of course, access to powerful broadcasting stations often requires the support of governments outside the country, something that’s been distinctly lacking when the repressive regimes are in either the oil-rich Middle East or impoverished Africa.

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