Community Resilience through Mesh Networking

Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas on September 2nd, knocking out power to the island of New Providence. In Venezuela, infrastructural issues led to blackouts for a local university. In Hong Kong, protestors are using encrypted messaging services to protect against government surveillance. These events are all examples of circumstances where a new technology, mesh networking, has made communities more resilient. Mesh networks serve as alternative networks that empower individuals to be able to react to and overcome the challenges created by outages. However, regulatory uncertainty currently inhibits adoption of mesh networks.

Mesh networking consists of direct peer-to-peer communication that relies on connectivity between multiple "nodes," instead of relying on centralized points of contact such as cell towers in traditional communications infrastructure. Communication devices such as smartphones act as nodes and talk directly to each other, creating a relay network where a message from one end transmits to the other end by bouncing off of the devices in between. Unlike standard communication networks, the failure of any one node in a mesh network will have only minimal effect on users because other nodes can quickly route messages around the point of failure.

Mesh networks are increasingly used as backup layers of communication to help communities recover from natural disasters or that damage existing communications infrastructure. While it is unknown if mesh networks were operational in the Bahamas when Dorian made landfall, they have been used before during widespread communications blackouts after Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Sandy. After Hurricane Maria, communications infrastructure in Puerto Rico remained offline, so community members set up their own mesh network to facilitate recovery and rebuilding. A similar story occurred after Sandy hit New York City—as part of a neighborhood reconstruction project, community members built the Red Hook Wi-Fi system to bring back internet access while traditional infrastructure was still down.

During a prolonged blackout in Venezuela, mesh networks empowered a local school’s members to coordinate about where to go and what resources were available. A local university purchased a number of special-purpose network nodes from GoTenna and gave each of its foreign teachers a node. According to Yasir Patel, the head of the British School Caracas, their mesh network extends over a two kilometer range and is able to cover all of the expat staff, allowing Yasir and other staff to send out key instructions during a blackout.

In each case, mesh networks increase the resilience of a community because they create a redundant network of networks. If one network fails, other networks can still function, enabling individuals to communicate crucial information with each other. However, many mesh networks include devices with transmitting capabilities such as antennas that are subject to FCC rules, which do not fully protect their installation. The FCC’s over-the-air-reception-devices (OTARD) rules protect installation of devices with receptive and some limited transmitting capabilities, but while the agency has recently interpreted these rules as extending to cover wireless transmission through mesh networks, its interpretation still allows for cities and home-owner associations to levy fees on or outright prohibit installation of “hub” antennas that serve multiple customer locations.  

This interpretation of the existing rules may restrict the growth of mesh networks that include antennas and other transmitting devices. Hub and relay antennas are often used to extend mesh networks in low population and rural areas where there may be large gaps between network users that would be expensive to cross with simple node-to-node relay. If the FCC wants to encourage the development of mesh networking, extending OTARD protection to hub antennas can strengthen the signal of the agency’s support for private installation of small transmitting devices of all kinds, including mesh nodes.

Cities, communities, and private enterprises are only just starting to explore the multiple possibilities of mesh networks. Mesh networks have not only been used as backup communication layers in the event of natural disasters, but are also being used by Hong Kong protestors, New York City residents who disagree with the FCC’s net neutrality policy, and companies such as Amazon, which wants to use mesh networking to help extend the range of its Internet of Thing devices such as Alexa. By extending protection for installation to a greater number of transmitting devices, the FCC can provide clarity of existing OTARD rules that could promote further development of mesh networks that make community communications more resilient in the face of crises.

Anne Hobson is a program manager at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Walter Stover is a MA fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Photo by Christian Wiediger