Meshin’ Around

Apple engineers may have unintentionally found a cost-effective way to help close the digital divide between developed and developing nations. The new Apple operating system, iOS 7, has an interesting new feature called the Multipeer Connectivity Network, which could provide internet access to developing nations. It allows for the creation of a mesh network that would expand internet and cellular access without requiring cable networks and therefore minimizing the infrastructure improvements and costs required to close the digital divide.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 2.54.19 PMWhat is a mesh network? Very simply stated, each mobile device creates its own internet router that can connect to other devices with the same technology within a certain distance. The devices connect and create their own network that can then create a chain allowing information to travel across several devices connected to the same network. As of right now, the current range is 30 feet from one device to another. But expands to 60 feet or more if users are always within 30 feet intervals from one another.

The benefits of this technology are apparent. If you are at a crowded event where cell service is often overburdened or non-existent, the mesh network would be an easy way to communicate. But the technology’s benefits for development are even more astounding. Infrastructure is often one of the largest barriers to closing the digital divide. Developing countries would no longer need the vast cable and cellular networks the developed world has in order to gain access to information. A wireless network that requires over hundreds of feet of cable instillations would require less than one hundred feet with a mesh network. Citizens of developing nations would also no longer have to pay for an expensive wireless plan.

imgresMesh networks are not entirely new to the developing world. Three African countries already use mesh networks: Ghana, South Africa, and Zambia. Asia contributes another three countries with India, Indonesia, and Nepal. Programs such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) are already taking advantage of mesh network technology to create connections between students and teachers. Often the schools that OLPC operates in lack basic electricity and access to internet, making both Ethernet and wireless connections impossible. But OLPC has found a way to overcome this barrier through mesh networks. Schools running a laptop program have one large, long-range server that can connect to a wireless network. Students and teachers can then connect to the internet through a mesh network with one another and the server.

These countries and programs, however, are pioneers in mesh networks as the technology has yet to gain full acceptance and incorporation in development programs. But this change could happen soon. The technology for mesh networks is expanding as more and more companies realize the potential of mesh networks. Google has begun working on a mesh network initiative, expanding use of the technology in android devices. While the engineers at Open Garden, a tech company, have pioneered the mesh network technology to create a texting app called FireChat that has gained substantial attention since its release earlier this week.

One of the largest barriers to mesh networks in development is the cost of the technology for individuals. While the cost for governments and development programs decreases, mesh networks still require certain technological capabilities from individuals. Users will need a certain standard of technology that may be too expensive for mass dissemination. This will impede the growth of mesh networks and the digital divide will continue to exist until affordable technology reaches developing nations.

Regardless of its shortcomings, mesh networks could overcome the infrastructural barriers that contribute to the digital divide. This would be a huge step in the right direction for development work. Mesh networks could support microenterprise and education in rural communities and would take less time to implement than making large-scale infrastructure improvements.

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