After Hurricane Maria, I was invited to a Slack group in Puerto Rico to offer my programming expertise for anyone who needed it. After beginning to comprehend the magnitude of the communications problem, I scoured for ways to set up long-distance mesh networking – no, not mobile apps like FireChat that rely on short-distance Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to establish limited local communications – rather, ways to post and find information across the entire island, with relays that could connect through the limited submarine cables to the outside Internet as a gateway for government agencies and worried relatives.
During the three weeks in my interest of this project (but powerlessness in doing anything, as I was taking classes), I investigated present technologies (such as 802.11s), as well as capabilities of router firmware, theoretical ranges of high-gain antennas, and other existing projects.
I saw Project Loon, but never expected much of it. The project must have taken a great deal of effort to take off, but unfortunately, it seemed to have a high cost with little return. Essentially, balloons were sent from some point on Earth and then led by high-altitude winds to cross Puerto Rico for a few hours, eventually to land at some location in the United States. Despite this effort, I found very few reports of actual reception from a Project Loon balloon.
Meanwhile, someone in the mesh networking Slack channel informed me that they were working with a professor at A&M to implement a mesh network from a paper that was already written. While I ultimately never saw the implementation of this mesh network, I felt put down by my naivete, but accepting that my plans were undeveloped and unexecutable, I moved on with the semester. Surely, mobile carriers must have had all hands on deck to reestablish cell phone coverage as quickly as possible, which is certainly the best long-term solution to the issue.
However, many places other than Puerto Rico remain in dire need of communications infrastructure, in towns and villages that for-profit carriers have no interest in placing coverage in. Moreover, there are islands at risk of becoming incommunicable in case of a hurricane.
I am looking to start a humanitarian mission to set up a mesh network. I find that there are three major characteristics to a theoretical successful mesh network: resilience, reach, and time to deploy.
A mesh network that is not resilient is flimsy: one failed node, perhaps bad weather or even vandalism, should not render all of the other nodes useless. Rather, the network should continue operating internally until connection can be reestablished with other nodes, or the situation can be avoided entirely by providing connections with other node, or even wormholing across the mesh network via cellular data.
A mesh network that does not reach does not have any users to bear load from, and thus becomes a functionally useless work of modern art. No, your users will not install an app from the app store – besides, with what Internet? – or buy a $50 pen-sized repeater from you. They want to get close to a hotspot – perhaps a few blocks away in Ponce – and let relatives all the way in Rio Piedras know that they are safe. And to maximize reach, of course, you need high-gain antennas to make 10-to-15-mile hops between backbone nodes that carry most of the traffic, which then distribute the traffic to subsidiary nodes down near town centers using omnidirectional antennas.
A mesh network that takes too long to deploy will not find much use in times of disaster. Cellular companies work quickly to restore coverage – a mesh network simply cannot beat cell coverage once it has been reestablished. First responders will bring satellite phones, and chances of switching to an entirely new communication system will dwindle as the weeks pass as volunteer workflows solidify.
How do I wish to achieve these mesh networking goals?
- Resilience – use Elixir and Erlang/OTP to build fault-tolerant systems and web servers that can shape traffic to accommodate both real-time and non-real-time demands. For instance, there could be both voice and text coming through a narrow link, which could be as low as 20 Mbps. There may also be an indirect route to the Internet, but there may not be enough bandwidth to allow all users to be routed to the Internet. Moreover, decentralized data structures exist that can be split and merged, in case new nodes are added or nodes become split in an emergency, with possible delayed communication between nodes due to an unreliable data link.
- Reach – allow users to reach the access point via conventional Wi-Fi or cellular radio, and connect via web browser. Nodes use omnidirectional antennas for distribution and high-gain antennas to form a backbone that can span dozens of miles.
- Time to deploy – use off-the-shelf consumer hardware and allow flexibility in choice of hardware. Make the specs open for anyone to build a node if desired. Pipeline the production of such nodes with a price tag of less than $400 per node.
I imagine that the mesh network will predominantly serve a disaster-oriented social network with various key features:
- Safety check – when and where did this person report that they were okay or needed assistance?
- Posts – both public and private
- Maps – locations that are open for business, distress calls, closed roads, etc.
- Real-time chat (text and voice)
- Full interaction with the outside world via Internet relays
- Limited routing to specific websites on the open Internet, if available (e.g. Wikipedia)
One issue with this idea, I suppose, is the prerequisite of having a fully decentralized social network, which has yet to be developed. But we cannot wait until the next big disaster to begin creating resilient mesh networks. We must begin experimenting very soon.