A mesh network is peer-to-peer. Phone, laptops, tablets, and PCs would share data via direct connections to each other rather than going through central servers. If the device you want to reach isn’t in range — if it’s miles away or on the other side of the world — then the message gets passed from one device to the next, like kids passing notes in school.
Right now, the Internet is centralized. Mesh networks promise to be more robust and less subject to centralized control and censorship. Mesh networks are already working in Greece, Kansas City, and Detroit, and a mesh network in Brooklyn stayed up when Hurricane Sandy took other communications down.
People tend to talk about the Internet the way they talk about democracy—optimistically, and in terms that describe how it ought to be rather than how it actually is.
This idealism is what buoys much of the network neutrality debate, and yet many of what are considered to be the core issues at stake—like payment for tiered access, for instance—have already been decided. For years, Internet advocates have been asking what regulatory measures might help save the open, innovation-friendly Internet.
But increasingly, another question comes up: What if there were a technical solution instead of a regulatory one? What if the core architecture of how people connect could make an end run on the centralization of services that has come to define the modern net?
While mesh networks are terrific, I question the utopianism of this article. Social benefits require technology, regulation, and norms. No one or even two of those factors is sufficient. We don’t refrain from stealing from our neighbors just because they have good locks — we refrain from stealing because of the locks, and law, and because society deems it to be wrong.
But mesh networks do indeed bring benefits. And one of these benefits is that the mesh networks don’t have to replace the Internet as we now know it. They can grow up alongside the Internet.
Indeed, the Internet was initially conceived as a mesh network. The current centralization is a more recent development.