What’s the big deal? Mesh networking explored

Mesh networking offers massive communication redundancy, pretty good privacy, and connectivity for remote tech installations & users.
27 November 2018

Telecommunications tower. Source: Shutterstock

In this age of ultra-connectivity, and with 5G looming on the horizon for many of us, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are many great swathes of the world– many of them in the so-called developed world– that have no internet connectivity.

In remote or rural areas, it’s just not viable for mainstream internet service providers (ISPs) to install the necessary infrastructure: there’s just no sustainable return on the considerable hardware investment involved.

Many areas, then, are turning to mesh networks to power device communications, and these networks are proving very popular, not just in developing countries where no ISPs exist (such as areas in Africa and Afghanistan), but also in remote areas in, for instance, California’s badlands.

The technology of mesh networks has been and mostly still is developed by the military, in the US, and across the world, as a way that data can be communicated ‘off the grid’. Military forces need to communicate quickly, securely, reliably and by means other than the large masts that dot the urban landscape.

In a mesh network, each node– phone, computer with some kind of antennae, or tablet– acts as both a receiver and transmitter of data packets. A piece of data requested by User A is passed to as many other users as possible (Users B, D, E, and F). The request is passed similarly until the destination is reached and the response sent back (or rather, scattered back) by the same method. Each and every node acts as both receiver and transmitter of data.

In many use cases that would be of use to today’s businesses, a response may come from any node that’s connected to the internet at the mesh’s edge. Mesh networks in these instances are used to massively extend a single, or a few, internet connections. Other uses include walkie-talkie style node-to-node communications, with data hopping between participating nodes to connect two or more geographically discrete distances. One company is pushing mesh networking for lovers of the great outdoors, during hiking expeditions, for example.

The military roots of mesh networking should be of no surprise to technology historians. The internet itself is a technology developed militarily. IP routing protocols were designed to be able to pass messages from two distant points via any route possible– the assumption was that some waystations along the message’s path would be out of action, for instance, in the event of a nuclear strike.

And latterly, the so-called dark web was built on protocols that were devised by the US Navy’s Intelligence Division to ensure its foreign agents could exchange messages without risk of interception and decryption.

In today’s business environments, most prominent or well-known mesh networking technologies exhibits many of the following features that make mesh so very suitable for specific applications. Advantages include:

Ad hoc deployment
Mesh networks are perfect for fast and cheap roll-out to one-off events, as there’s no need to invest in expensive supporting infrastructure such as many instances of traditional Wi-Fi hardware – cumbersome masts, delicate microwave links and so forth.

Highly secure
Any peer-to-peer network can use proprietary protocols, and therefore be highly robust from hackers. Unless nodes identify themselves correctly, and are acquainted with those protocols, they cannot easily join the mesh to join, scan or eavesdrop. Mesh networks can be entirely private, with few or no connections to public nets.

Power independent
Because of the many-to-many method of passing data packets, each node can power off without significant impact on the rest of the network. This makes devices that use solar or renewable power sources viable participants, both as communications devices and as nodes. Traditional Wi-Fi needs power all the time, but mesh networks can run on hundreds of cellphones which power on and off according to users’ needs, for example.

Massive redundancy
If one node fails– or powers off (see above)– data communication is still assured. The larger the network, the more redundancy is on offer. No single point of failure means that communications are all but assured.

Several mainstream networking infrastructure suppliers offer mesh products, such as those in Cisco’s Meraki range. Juniper and TP-Link also offer wireless mesh products. Additionally, there are many instances of quasi-autonomous networks (typically unsupported by mainstream ISPs) setting up their own mesh networks to push connectivity into increasingly remote areas.

In the standard office and home, mesh networking products can effectively extend network coverage without some of the drawbacks of traditional Wi-Fi extender points. Several of Google’s networking devices can be deployed in mesh topologies– although the ability is not widely regarded as marketing ‘gold’ at present.

Like many borderline technologies, mesh networking may see its heyday sooner than you expect. Autonomous vehicle communications could be at the vanguard, according to some industry commentators. Cars traveling through very remote areas could remain in contact with other systems by means of data ‘hops’ car to car, for example. However, an examination of venture capital’s investments into mesh networking initiatives may reveal tomorrow’s networking “big thing” as being some area that’s quite different.

As ever, watch these pages for the latest on this exciting area of technology.