Decentralized Internet in the Wake of Natural Disasters and Repressive Regimes

11/03/2017 11:16 pm ET

With natural disasters disrupting Internet communication and repressive regimes restricting access, it is time to have a bigger conversation about the importance of connectivity. The United Nations deems Internet connectivity to be a basic human right because of the social and economic benefits direct access to the Internet entails, but there are still approximately 4 billion unconnected people. These people often live in remote regions where there is little economic incentive for centralized Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to build better infrastructure and in developing countries where people cannot afford Internet service. There is, however, a greater issue with internet provided by ISPs beyond cost and infrastructure; ISPs are centralized, rendering them vulnerable to disruption by natural disasters or by deliberate interference from governments.

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, disrupting service provided by 90% of the island’s cell towers and leaving countless residents unable to contact rescuers or friends and family. The disruption is particularly problematic in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes, as these are precisely the occasions when people need steady communication to receive aid, support rescue efforts and reconnect with displaced relatives.

A few big tech companies have grand designs to provide emergency services to Puerto Rico and remote regions suffering from spotty Internet connectivity. For instance, Google parent company, Alphabet, plans to deploy high-altitude balloons in an effort called Project Loon, but though the project has received approval from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the technology has yet to be tested on a large scale. Other massive-scale global connectivity efforts include SpaceX’s satellite-Internet project and Facebook’s plans to beam Internet around the world with drones. As fascinating as these projects may be, dependance on large corporations like Google, SpaceX, and Facebook for connectivity is still a centralized solution that is vulnerable to corruption and driven by company-interest rather than that of the people.

Proponents for Internet Freedom see the inroads being made by tech giants into the remaining unconnected areas as a threat to individual privacy and freedom. Already, Google and Facebook collect data on our web searches, clicks, likes, and comments, endowing these entities with an extraordinary level of power on par with many governments. Countries such as China and North Korea censor their citizens’ access to the world wide web in order to suppress uprisings and maintain power, but even in a “free society,” people are easily influenced by targeted advertisements based on data collected by big tech companies.

Fortunately, we don’t need expensive satellites, drones, and air balloons to expand Internet connectivity to people impacted by natural disasters and those living under repressive governments. One Vancouver, Canada-based company, RightMesh, is using mobile mesh networks and the tokenization enabled by blockchain technology to connect the world. A mobile mesh network is essentially a web of mobile devices wherein all users have access to the Internet as long as at least one device is connected. The solution enables smartphones - devices which are already used throughout the world - to become nodes in an ad hoc network and uses a proprietary protocol to ensure secure, reliable, and efficient routing between them. Other mesh networking projects have been attempted in the past with little success in taking off on a mass scale. The problem with adoption of previously attempted mesh networks can largely be attributed to a reliance on hardware.

CEO of RightMesh, John Lyotier, explains, “Unlike previously attempted projects, RightMesh is taking a software approach. When developers build their applications on the RightMesh platform, they can reach an entirely new user-base of unconnected consumers.” Though infrastructure is slow to expand, the number of people with mobile devices is growing exponentially. It’s predicted that by the year 2020, there will be more than 6 billion smartphones on the planet.

Distinguishing itself further from previous mesh networking projects, the company is securing its mesh network with blockchain technology. Blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin, is gaining acclaim for its capacity to enable peer-to-peer exchanges without mediation by a centralized third party, such as a bank or government. Just as bitcoin is considered to be a digital coin, they are launching their own coin, a MESH token, which can be used within the firm’s ecosystem to reward the sharing of mobile device resources. For instance, if a user chooses to share her surplus bandwidth with someone in need, she is rewarded in MESH tokens that can then be used to purchase data or storage at a later date. Essentially, RightMesh is using blockchain technology to incentivize people to share resources that someone else on the network needs. The rewards structure encourages good behavior and furthers the company’s mission to connect the world.

If we only consider expensive, infrastructure-based solutions to address the need for expanded Internet access, many individuals living in remote areas will be waiting a long time for connectivity. But if we encourage people to share existing resources through peer-to-peer solutions like RightMesh, we can connect the world as quickly as we can spread awareness.

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