Called a mesh network, the technology lets users connect directly to each other rather than through a central hub. For the citizens of Sayada, that means they can create a community network free from government surveillance or interference. For residents of
Of course, mesh networks aren't new. They've been operating in
Most wireless networks operate using a hub and spoke layout -- basically, a central broadcast tower links to users like spokes on a wheel. With mesh networking, "envision a fish net," says
This design avoids any single point of failure (a problem in
Mesh networks can start small, with just a handful of devices, but can easily grow as demand picks up. "Think of mesh networks as infrastructure lite," Bullen says. "It's similar to installing bus rapid transit versus an underground subway system. It's something that can be put up quickly, even moved to another location if it isn't working well."
Grassroots community groups have shown the strongest interest in using mesh networks, but cities and towns should consider them too. It's a way to provide citizens access to the Internet in hard-to-reach places, such as city parks and urban corridors where buildings might block traditional Wi-Fi signals.
Mesh networking does have some technology challenges and limitations, though. Every router that forms the backbone of the network must have an unobstructed view of another router in order to complete the connection. Most neighborhood mesh networks are designed to operate at rooftop level so that trees or other buildings don't block the signal as it travels from one router to the next. Communications can also get slow if signals have to make multiple hops from one router to another; costs can escalate if the size or scope of the network grows significantly; and putting together a small network can be time consuming. Community networks that rely on volunteer help often underestimate the amount of labor needed to set it up.
Despite the drawbacks, the future for mesh networks looks bright. The demand for wireless access, particularly in dense and low-income urban areas, continues to grow. And as climate change brings more unpredictable weather, mesh could become a critical way to keep citizens connected to vital services and make communities more resilient.
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