Could a mesh network of decentralized Wi-Fi routers replace Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and thwart snoops and interlopers?
Gathered on sites such as the subreddit r/darknetplan, entrepreneurs and activists discuss plans to create an alternative to the current Internet by beaming data packets from router to router, circumventing ISPs.
This is called mesh networking, where each node on a network is both a recipient and a relay station for data.
How meshnets work
Currently, all Internet data is sent from user’s devices to a central routing station operated by an ISP, which then routes the data to its intended address.
With mesh networking, however, all devices are connected with wireless signals (wired connections are also possible but considered impractical due to the sheer bulk of wires required).
When data is sent from a connected device, it “hops” along a chain of such devices until it reaches it final destination. A low latency is ensured by only sending a small amount of data until the fastest route is established.
Data sent along the chain is also encrypted along each step using temporary security keys that are later discarded, meaning it cannot be decrypted later, according to the Wiki for the CJDNS meshnet protocol. This method of encryption is called perfect forward secrecy.
The routing software is designed to manage itself, allowing devices to automatically discover all possible routers and determine the optimal traffic path.
Because it is a network of independent nodes, the network is also self-repairing, meaning traffic will reroute itself instead of bottlenecking if one node is down (see graphic below).
Image courtesy of fdacosta via Wikipedia.
This distributed nature also means that the network scales well with growth, as each additional router on the network improves the signal quality and offers additional redundancy in case of failure. The only way of shutting down a mesh network is to shut down every node.
Are these networks actually being established?
In fact, mesh networks have been in use since the ‘70s (for radio, and in later decades the Internet), in both military and emergency relief efforts. However, civilian use has only really become viable over the last decade as the cost of hardware has gone down.
For instance, the PersonalTelco project in Portland, Ore. uses a meshnets to offer Wi-Fi free of charge to the end user. There’s actually a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to listing projects like this.
In 2012, following Hurricane Sandy, a New York City-based group called the Red Hook Initiative built out their existing meshnet to provide Internet to disaster-struck Brooklyn residents.
Beyond these local efforts, there’s also more expansive projects, such as Project Meshnet, which connects local clusters of meshnets to a larger Internet alternative called Hyperboria.
A group called OpenLibernet is hoping to incentivize users to maintain the network by rewarding them Bitcoin-style (we explain how that works here) for each packet process, while another initiative called Outernet is hoping to beam Internet signals to Earth from a constellation of orbiting mini satellites.
The two latter, rather ambitious projects highlight the two challenges the community is still trying to solve: how to make people join the project – and how to distribute the meshnet globally.
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