Mesh Networking has long promised to unshackle users from Internet Service Provider charges and fees. The technology powers many of the largest mobile networks in the world, leveraging proven routing techniques originally developed for battlefield communications by the military.
Internet Service Providers offer all-or-nothing connections, meaning you either have internet or you don’t. For those who work all day, and sleep at night, this connection is underutilized for the majority of the time. Mesh networks let homeowners leverage their existing internet connection, and supply service to neighbors and other people in the surrounding area.
More technically, client meshing enables wireless peer-to-peer networks to form between and among client devices. The lack of network infrastructure means that high performance and scalable broadband networks can be built at very low cost. As users join the network they improve network coverage and increase network throughput.
FireChat is one of the most well-known mesh networks. The peer-to-peer smartphone app works without internet access and uses no cellular data. Even in the face of natural disasters and deliberate political internet service disruption, Firechat has kept people in contact with each other while involving no central services like an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
“Successful mesh networking apps like FireChat have proven that there is definitely a market need.”
- Konstantin Dukakis, wifiportal21 Index Creator
Among the numerous attempts to bring mesh networks to a wider audience, the biggest permanent example is currently Guifi.net. Connecting to the Catalonia-based peer-to-peer network only requires a commercially-available hardware router, and is otherwise completely free. It now links three continents and enables over 32,000 households to share a wide-area network connection, and ISP connections, with each other at no cost.
The Brooklyn Mesh is another free network, covering Manhattan and surrounding boroughs. While it's much smaller than Guifi, there’s a long waiting list to join the volunteer run project.
Hyperboria, formerly known as Project Meshnet, is a European-based attempt to unite different mesh networks, and is actively looking for a way to make the different routing protocols for ad-hoc networks speak to each other. Hyperboria could enable Guifi users to share with the Brooklyn mesh.
Even though the hardware can cost as little as $30-$90 per household, which is in line with existing home router prices, many projects have fall by the wayside over the years. The business model of free access is a major inhibitor. Users have no monetary incentive to share bandwidth and access to the internet.
“If you have line-of-sight to another member or they are very close by you can ask if it is OK to share internet,” the Brooklyn Mesh’s website says. “We encourage people to share or make deals with their neighbors.”
Micropayments have offered a solution for many years, and they’re baked into the internet as we know it. These small payments, typically less than a dollar, were supposed to be used to sell online content, one link or download at a time, to consumers.
The response code for payment, HTTP status code 402, was added in 1996. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) spec for micropayment link integration was finalised in 1999. “We believe that to pay a small amount for content or services, the user should use the same user interface metaphor as for regular web content: just click on a hypertext link,” states W3C.
The idea could replace more traditional subscription models, such as those used by ISPs. The idea is that users would only pay for access as and when they need, and pay as they go. The advent of Bitcoin provided a usable micropayment system, and quietly ushered in a new era of paid mesh networking.
Half a dozen projects have been launched in the past few year, promoting a decentralized internet fueled by micropayment technology, increasing adoption and attracting new users. A handful of cryptocurrency powered networks, BitMesh, BEWP and BitcoinWifi to name a few, have tried to give entrepreneurs a way to set up Wifi hotspots that accept bitcoin in return for wifi.
“Bitcoin is not only ideal technology - it is essential for BitMesh to function. The availability of micropayment channels affords connected peers to buy and sell internet a granular level in a secure, trust-less manner without the need for a third party or escrow.”
- Andrew Donley, BitMesh CEO & Co-Founder
Andreas Antonopoulos, famed bitcoin speaker and author of two of the bestselling books on the subject of bitcoin, also developed a bitcoin wifi portal project called Wifiportal21. The code was originally developed for use with 21 Inc’s bitcoin computer, and several developers have since used the code for their own projects. “It was a limited-use proof-of-concept,” Antonopoulos said to BNC.
“It’s a fun proof-of-concept and it can help teach bitcoin APIs, 21 APIs and micro-payments but not a real business or income opportunity,” Antonopoulos explained. But “they won't find any customers to buy the service.”
“The peer-to-peer nature of the mesh networking concept requires a peer-to-peer payment system,” Antonopoulos elaborated. “If not bitcoin, perhaps something equivalent, but for now only bitcoin is widely enough adopted to even come close.”
“Paid mesh networking requires concentrated adoption of the payment mechanism (eg. bitcoin) and is geographically dependent. That makes it very difficult to bootstrap. You need users who have bitcoin and access points that offer services for bitcoin, both in the same vicinity. Outside of a very few markets, there is no such concentration.”
- Andreas Antonopoulos
Developer Konstantin Dukakis made a Wifi portal Indexing application in August, using a 21.co bitcoin computer and Andreas Antonopolous' Wifiportal21 code. He concurred with Antonopoulos, stating that “the reason why paid projects in this space haven’t become mainstream yet, is because bitcoin payments aren’t yet mainstream for everyday transactions.”
The only current project on Github with the technical specifications to connect paid bitcoin wifi portals to an existing Meshnet is Biternet. This proof of concept project was written by Renlord N. Yang, a student at ETH Zurich.
Yang successfully set up a working set of nodes for evaluation, concluding that “Biternet is simple and easy to configure for mesh node owners and may easily scale depending on the hardware used to provide internet service.”
“The sole requirement of participation in Biternet is a network device which perform ad-hoc networking,” the Biternet whitepaper says, “otherwise every other network interfaces are optional.”
“Each node operates at a peer-to-peer level with no strict requirement that there must be access to the Internet. Bitcoin micropayment channels are used to facilitate micropayments, allowing mesh nodes to charge end users based on the data usage with a fine granularity.”
- Renlord N. Yang