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Mesh Networks: Their Development, Deployment, and Future Viability

Andrew Leahey
To understand mesh networks, one must first have a basic understanding of the
underlying technology of networks. Strictly speaking a network, in the telecommunications
sense, is an interconnection of devices in to a local area network (LAN) or wide area network
(WAN) that allows for communication between all connected devices. In order to facilitate the
connection of all devices to each other, there are two common topologies utilized: the first being
the more-traditional “star network”, that is “a local area network (LAN) in which all nodes
(workstations or other devices) are directly connected to a common central computer” (“What is
Star Network?”). The second being the emerging “mesh network”; in a mesh network “each
node (workstation or other device) is connected directly to each of the others” (“What is Mesh
Network?”). That is to say, a mesh network distributes the routing load
away from a central computer or router and equally on to each individual

Star networks have long been the staple of LAN deployments due to
their relatively simple installation and maintenance. An example of a star
network is any household router or hub, with connected computers. Star
networks are relatively robust in that the failure in the connection of any
one device, or “node”, to the central computer or router will not result in the
disconnection of the other nodes. A useful mental image for a star network is a hub and spoke;
the center hub is the central computer, or router, with the node computers Copyright 2010 Tech Target
being connected at the end of each spoke. Each spoke is connected to every
other spoke only by way of the hub.

The main weakness of a star network lies in this hub, its central computer or router. There
is no redundancy in the connections between the nodes, therefore any failure in this central
computer will result in the disconnection of all nodes. In the model of a consumer network
deployment with star network-style router, any failure in the router will result in all connected
computers not only losing access to each other, but losing access to the internet as well. This is
perhaps acceptable for consumer applications, but in commercial or military deployments such a
weakness would be considered a significant hindrance to adoption.

A more redundant and robust topology was thus required for the deployment of mission-
critical networks in military and commercial applications. A mesh network
is a network in which “each node (workstation or other device) is connected
directly to each of the others” (“What is Mesh Network?”). That is to say, a
mesh network is one in which the workload of routing connections is
dispersed amongst all the nodes of the network. There is no central router,
each node acts as both a node and a router, connected to all other nodes and
simultaneously interconnecting all of the other nodes to each other. This
load balancing allows for a much more robust network so that, under ideal Copyright 2010 Tech Target
circumstances, the failure of any one node or connection will not result in
disconnection for any of the other nodes.
This is not to say mesh networks are not without their disadvantages viewed over star
networks. Each connection that must be made in order for one computer to access another,
known as a “hop”, reduces the overall speed of that network. Star networks are referred to as
“single hop” networks, because each node needs only to make one connection, to the central
router, before being routed to the computer containing the information requested or sent. That is
to say, in a star network-style consumer network, a laptop connected to the wireless router in the
house, requesting a webpage, needs only to make the initial connection to the wireless router; the
router then routes that request to the server containing the page requested. One hop, and the
information is retrieved. If that same laptop was connected to a mesh network, a “multi-hop”
network, it might have to connect and reconnect to several nodes before retrieving the web page
requested. These multi-hop connections take time, thus reducing the maximum potential speed of
a mesh network.

Despite its speed reduction implications, the redundancy and reliability of mesh networks
have proven useful for a number of applications. One such application is that which the
technology was developed for, the military. Research in to mesh networks began in the 1980s,
with military funding; the United States was looking for a suitable network topology for use on
the battlefield. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S.
Department of Defense began the Survivable Radio Network (SURAN) project in 1982, with the
aim of creating a wireless mesh network capable of reliability and mobile deployment (Beyer).
The cost of the wireless technology required, however, severely limited the feasibility of such a
complex network (Lee). This project was relegated to the shelf as a potentially useful concept
that was simply ahead of its time for the technology available.

As wired networking technology matured, and wireless networking entered the market,
researchers saw an opportunity for second look at mesh networking in the 1990s. In 1998
students at Carnegie Mellon installed computers and mesh network radios in to five cars which
were then kept in motion around campus, while simultaneously attempting to maintain a
connection between each other and two additional nodes situated at opposite ends of the campus
(Lee). The mesh network “nodes were able to automatically adapt to changes in network
topology, maintaining connectivity among themselves and providing continuous connectivity
between two fixed nodes at opposite ends of campus” (Lee). This marked a pivotal moment in
mesh network research, proving the potentiality of such a deployment being scaled up and
utilized to maintain a connection between two computer networks situated a distance apart

As wireless networks became affordable for consumer use, and indeed even ubiquitous,
the economy of scale began to take effect and wireless radio costs began to drop. The next big
proof-of-concept test was that of Roofnet, a project lead by a team at MIT to provide wireless
access to the area of Cambridge surrounding the campus (“roofnet [MIT Roofnet]”). The
experiment was largely successful, utilizing off-the-shelf components to create a viable network
providing access to more than one hundred nodes. Additioannly, this ongoing project has been
the foundation for several other steps forward in mesh networking: Meraki, the first commercial-
grade mesh network service, and the mesh networking implementation of an MIT developing-
world technology deployment project known as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC).

The OLPC project, headed up by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, was an initiative with the
goal of creating a low-cost laptop, with a starting price of $100, which could be distributed to
students in developing countries (“History of OLPC – OLPC”). The initial mockup included a
crank for recharging in regions without access to electricity, and a mesh network
implementation. The idea being, in addition to electricity as a scarce resource, internet
connectivity would be difficult to roll out with any kind of significant saturation. This was seen
as an excellent application for wireless mesh networking. With a distribution of standardized
nodes, each individual OLPC, the potential roadblock of having to varying systems to be able to
communicate with each other effectively was eliminated. With just one OLPC being connected
to the outside world, connectivity could hop from student to student, and it was thought that a
large portion of the student population could share one internet access point.

While mesh networking seemed like a perfect solution on paper, in its execution some of
the protocol’s flaws were laid bare. First, it became apparent that the “radios and antennas are so
small that it would take hundreds of OLPC devices with perfect spacing to replace a single high-
powered Access Point with high-gain antennas” (Ou). In order to fit wireless mesh networking
equipment in to something the size of a laptop, and in order to keep the price of that laptop
within reach of the developing world, the strength of the radio had to be compromised. This
meant that it would “take more than 400 OLPC laptops to cover the same area” (Ou) as a
conventional wireless router. This fact raised serious questions as to whether a mesh network
was economically feasible for such an application.

In addition to coverage issues due to too few nodes, when an OLPC mesh network
experiment was deployed in the Gobi desert, the issues arising from too many nodes became
apparent. A side effect of the multi-hop nature of mesh networks is also an exponential increase
in radio traffic for each piece of data sent (Orem). Once a certain number of nodes are connected
and transmitting, the radio frequency simply becomes saturated, and no data can be sent or
received (Ou, “Painful lesson in OLPC mesh networking for Mongolians”). This means that, at
least with existing technology, in order for wireless mesh networking to be a viable option for
developing countries with limited access, there has to be a specific number of nodes connecting
within a given area. Any more, and the system breaks down; any less, and there is not sufficient
coverage to maintain the network.

Despite its failure to solve the problem of internet connectivity in the third world, the
OLPC project did give wireless mesh networking a shot in the arm. It moved it out of MIT
research labs and Carnegie Mellon experiments, and in to real devices with real users.
Additionally, while not a huge success, OLPC did increase production of wireless mesh
networking components, implementing an economy of scale and forcing the price down. It
provided press coverage to researchers looking in to future implementations, such as the
Distributed Systems and Networks lab at Johns Hopkins (www.dsn.jhu.edu), and companies
such as Firetide (www.firetide.com) which develop surveillance equipment that utilize wireless
mesh networks. While the technology as it currently exists may not have proven itself viable in
the developing world, new potential use for it was being looked at in developed nations.

One of the aforementioned use cases for mesh networks in the developed world is aiding
municipalities in moving their communication devices, such as two-way radios and mobile video
streaming, off of the analog radio spectrum to digital (Benzinga). Firetide, and other wireless IP
network companies like it, have utilized the robustness of mesh networks to focus on
applications with a fixed number of nodes. This circumvents the problem faced by mesh general-
access networks by rigidly engineering the infrastructure not to be overloaded, and being able to
predict and control the data load the network will be subjected to. One such deployment was in
Seoul, Korea, where a mesh network was deployed to provide wireless video surveillance in the
subway system. Mr. Jung Yeong-Hyun, manager in charge of the project was quoted as saying
“wireless mesh equipment could provide the high speed performance required to deliver
streaming video from the station to moving rail cars and operate in one of harshest of
environments for RF networks” (Seoul Korea's Subway System to Deploy…”). Such an
application is especially suited to mesh networking as a high-gain antenna would have difficulty
providing coverage through the tunnels.

The Seoul subway project was not the only one of its kind, as use cases for wireless mesh
networks were found in various fields. One development in the sector has come from Microsoft,
which has released its research in to Self Organizing Wireless Mesh Networks. Their concept has
been less about sharing internet connectivity, per se, and more focusing on the potential ability
for the creation of a local intranet. An intranet can be thought of a sub-internet comprised of
computers connected together. The main benefit of such an intranet would be to “allow faster
and easier dissemination of cached information that is relevant to the local community” (“Self
Organizing Wireless Mesh Networks”). That is to say, local intranets created by mesh networks
could allow for the disintermediation of the internet. The internet would, in effect, cease to be a
star network, and become more like a mesh network itself; with localized intranets connecting to
each other rather than each individual computer user connecting to the broader internet directly.

For mesh networks to become a viable alternative to the traditional broadband access
paradigm, however, there are a number of hurdles that it is going to have to overcome. The first
and most pressing, is the issue that kept it from being successfully deployed in the developing
world: its limited range. Its potential for the elimination of a central router has no economic or
resource advantage if the money saved not purchasing the router is more than spent on the
number of node devices required to provide coverage for a reasonable area. Additionally, even in
the developed world, in order to reach the saturation level required to provide coverage, a
relatively high number of devices will have to be in use; and in order to prove the product viable
for consumer applications, the coverage issue will have to be resolved, creating something of a
catch-22. It will be a difficult task to sell products to a consumer base with the promise that the
product will reach its full potential when enough units are sold. Therefore, wireless mesh
networking will likely have to remain a side-feature of traditional star network devices, in order
to encourage the kind of deployment level required.

Another issue to its successful deployment lies more in its sociology than its technology.
There is a real sociological perspective to be analyzed with regards to the feasibility of expecting
individual user-nodes to be willing to utilize resources such as power, or battery life in the case
of mobile applications, to forward the packets of information for another user-node. A place this
can been seen as being potentially problematic is in a cell phone deployment model. There are
few devices as ubiquitous as the cell phone, which would seem to make it an excellent candidate
for wireless mesh networking. However, Jinyang Li, a professor at NYU who has been
researching mesh networks for more than 10 years, is one of many experts who have expressed
doubts as to whether there is any incentive for individual user-nodes to cooperate. Li has called
in to question whether there would not be widespread “cheating”, where individuals would
modify their devices so as to take advantage of the wireless mesh network but not forward the
traffic of others (qtd. in Lee). This would substantially increase the battery life of the individual’s
device, and cause no ill effects to him personally. The other members of the network would
never know who he was, or that he was not reciprocating, thus leaving him with little incentive
not to cheat, and plenty of incentive to improve his own battery life.

Further, there is a financial requirement in any sort of mesh network deployment. If you
imagine a neighborhood mesh network sharing internet access, the situation arises where one
individual’s node may break down. Under a perfect system, the individual, wishing to regain
access to the network and for their own good, immediately incurs the cost of repairing their node.
However, all that would be required to create a blackout area in the neighborhood mesh network,
assuming there was not sufficient coverage overlap, would be for one individual to have his or
her node break down, and potentially multiple people are affected. The financial burden is now
not so clear cut. The question arises as to who should bear the responsibility for the repair. This
brings in to question various sociological questions of perceived ownership of the network,
community versus individual maintenance, and individual responsibility for maintaining

This potential for an overall lack of reciprocity is not the only sociological or cultural
issue surrounding the deployment of mesh networks. Another potential issue is security, and user
trust. The average user has only recently become accustomed to doing his or her banking online,
and entrusting that information over a secured wireless network has taken some time as well. The
question remains whether individuals would feel comfortable sending such sensitive data over a
network, with complete assurance that the data would be traveling through at least one other
user’s system before it reached its destination. (Lee). The cost-benefits of switching to such a
network must be great, or the alternate options must be few, before the individual user is going to
be willing to trust his or her neighbor’s with their most sensitive data.
Mesh networks have, up until this point, been mostly a concept looking for an
application. The technical concept of the disintermediation of the central router of the star
network has been an attractive notion for engineers for more than twenty years. The technology
has drastically improved in that time. Moore’s law has pushed the processing power of chips,
and the amount of capacitors that can be fit on a single circuit board, to double every 18 months.
Mesh networking, like all other technologies, has benefitted from this progress. Initially a proof-
of-concept research lab project, the last ten years have seen it rise to feasibility, and the
beginning signs of its potential. There is no question, with continued progress and growth in the
sector, mesh networks are going to see increasing applications and deployment in the coming

Additionally, with the technology shifting away from wired mesh networks, and on to
wireless, it has benefitted from the increase of the available wireless spectrum. With continued
increasing access to open parts of the spectrum, as television goes digital, there will only be more
availability for technologies such as mesh networking. Wireless devices such as cell phones
have, in the life of the mesh network, risen from the domain of the wealthy and powerful, to one
of the most ubiquitous consumer devices on the market. If the technology can overcome the
sociological and cultural hurdles involved in breaking in to the mobile telephone market, it may
have its victory over the star network model in that sector.

The economics of mesh networking has seen significant change over its lifetime as well.
When it was first developed, designed for wired applications, it exponentially increased the cost
of cable and switches over its star network counterpart. When the shift was made to deployment
for wireless solutions, it no longer suffered from quite the same level of cost implications. It
requires each device have more radios within it, generally at least double the number required for
a traditional star network, but instead of its increase in network traffic requiring additional cables
and switches, it sends its flurry of data over the radio spectrum. The benefit of increased
redundancy in network connections remains, but the overall cost of deployment is decreased,
both positive indicators for the future economic viability of wireless mesh networking.

Furthermore, the ubiquity of wireless devices has implemented an economy of scale that
has drastically reduced the cost of each individual radio chipset. This has brought the technology
literally from the point of being too expensive for DARPA and the Department of Defense to
investigate, to implementation in a $100 laptop intended for the third world. There is no reason
to believe that the same pressures causing this dramatic decrease in cost will not continue to
effect the bottom-line of mesh network components. As these components decrease in cost, a
great deal of the barriers to its adoption will be removed. It may move from an expensive
component that would drastically increase the cost of any device including it, to a relatively
inexpensive side-feature of portable computers and smart phones.

In terms of its use cases, and the sociological implications of the mesh network, it has
been evolving since its inception as well. Initially thought of as a battlefield communication
networking solution, it moved in to the public sector. From there it appeared destined to connect
the third world to the internet; failing to meet its potential with that task, it was moved back to
the developed world to be deployed for surveillance and mobile communications
implementations. Through these shifts it has moved from a closed-network military application,
to public, and back to municipal closed-networks. Now it appears to be, through projects like that
at Microsoft, moving slowly back in to the public sector. Like the internet before it, developed
for military use, it took some time for the public to find a use for it; but once it did, there was no
turning back. It is clear that society is moving towards increased communication and social
networking, there is no reason to believe that a use case for localized mesh networking
topologies will be found that resounds with users.

A viable future use case for wireless mesh networks, in my opinion, may be to enhance
existing wireless connectivity methods. One example might be, taking advantage of the relatively
low power requirement of the radios involved, the deployment of solar-powered routing stations
throughout a community, or rural area. Rather than taking the place of the wired, or WiMAX
connectivity in the region, the mesh network might be used as something of a secondary
connection route. With each individual user’s computer bridging the wired and wireless mesh
connections on his or her machine, in times of outages, an alternative method of internet
connectivity might be the mesh network. Especially with so many regions experiencing single-
provider scenarios for DSL and cable internet access, this could be a viable option for providing
access to the internet for cable users, when DSL is down, and vice versa. This also gets around
the sociological and cultural implications of questionable reciprocity, as it would be viewed by
its users not as something to be relied on, but something that is useful when it is available.
Additionally, it would only be during DSL or cable network downtime that any bandwidth would
be being taken from host nodes, increasing the likelihood of individuals being willing to give to
get, perhaps capitalizing on the same sociological reward implications that allow peer-to-peer
file-sharing to work.

Another viable future use case I see for mesh networks is similar to the intranet-style
localized caching suggested by Microsoft. As pressure is put on traditional ISPs, by
organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America and the film industry, to
crack down on file sharing, you may see something of a backchannel for file-sharing arise. One
can imagine in a situation such as a monitored university network, there being a use for a sub-
internet within the student body where files can freely be shared and transferred, away from the
prying eyes of the university. Unfortunately, like most other technologies, it would not likely be
long before more nefarious illegal file trading, such as child pornography, latched on to such a
technology. You might then see mesh networks become something of a red-light district of the

The removal of oversight by ISPs and governing bodies, and a future truly fully
community-run sub-internet has interesting sociological implications in and of itself. It could be
viewed as something of a technological version of Rousseau’s state-of-nature. The community
would be the sole judge of what is and is not acceptable content, and perhaps the first truly free-
speech network would come in to existence. It is easy to imagine both the positive and negative
uses such a network would attract. In places where censorship is an issue, such as China, it could
mark a major turning point in the ability of the government to crack down on free speech.

A final use case that I see for mesh networks, is again utilizing the creation of sub-
internet intranet networks in communities. Such an intranet could be used to share information of
concern to individuals living in the surrounding geographical area, such as hyper-local news,
traffic conditions, weather, and etcetera. In this case the wider internet would still be the go-to
destination for bandwidth intensive content such as music and movies, but the mesh network
might be utilized for plaintext and image sharing locally. With a sufficient userbase you might
see the same sociological forces encouraging individuals to donate their time to projects such as
Wikipedia, doing the same for local news.

The future viability of mesh networks relies on a four circumstances persisting: First, the
saturation of wide-range wireless access points, such as WiMAX, must remain low, and the costs
high; wireless mesh networks can benefit from being a cheaper alternative. Second, the increase
in production and use of wireless radios for other networking applications must continue in order
to continue to drive down the cost of wireless chipsets. Third, research must continue in to
methods of overcoming the range and capacity limitations of existing mesh network
technologies. Finally, the radio spectrum available to wireless devices must continue to increase.
With more and more devices requiring space on the spectrum, the available range must increase
or mesh network technology must decrease its usage, if device manufacturers are to see wireless
mesh networking as a viable network topology.
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