Mesh Networks Outlook – An Industry Veteran’s Input


Tareq Hoque is a true veteran of the mesh industry, having started back in 2002 with Firetide (now part of Unicom Global), which introduced the Hot Point mesh access gear. While his current company, Concentris Systems focuses on national security and select sponsored commercial mesh solutions, we recently had a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the mesh market and the future opportunities.

The attractive characteristics of mesh include: speed to implement and relatively low cost, as they do not require extensive or costly infrastructure (and may not require any infrastructure at all); decentralization, so that the failure of a node will not bring down the rest of the network; the ability to gain online connectivity for multiple users or nodes as long as any one can connect.

We expect further dramatic developments in mesh, as discussed in Our Analysis, below.

The Growing Relevance of Mesh Networking

While mesh networking originated with the military about 30 years ago, it is on an upsurge today.

Regarding the military, which Hoque is very familiar with, he has been working on experimental systems for dealing with convoys and dismounted troops. He notes, with some regret, that the military, which had pioneered mesh networking, has now fallen behind private industry. As he put it, “They are implementing battle hardened versions of technology that troops may have at home.”

There are two general categories of mesh networks – infrastructure-based, which employ hardware routers and access points; and client-based, which rely on software apps in mobile devices and do not require any additional infrastructure.

Hoque, however, distinguishes between client-based mesh, which he states should be called “peer-to-peer” (P2P) and infrastructure-based mesh, which he categorizes as “mesh”. While there is a similarity between the two, he states that mesh networks offer “realtime, continuous communications” while P2P is “opportunistic, not continuous.”

Regardless of terminology, there has been an upsurge in use of mesh, in both categories.

Growing Use of Infrastructure-based Mesh

There has been increasing use of mesh in a number of industries, such as oil and gas and agriculture, which have to deal with unusual or changing conditions. Hoque describes a system Concentris helped to develop for Shell Oil, which used satellite terminals to reach remote offshore rigs and mesh for backhaul.

Hoque points to three primary areas for mesh networking: 1) Rapid deployment, temporary use networks; 2) Backhaul – connecting access points or cellsites; and 3) IoT (Internet of Things). In addition, we might add another key area, which is situations where survivability with self-healing is often necessary.

Events such as concerts or other public gatherings are an example of the first area. Hoque mentions that in 2008, he worked with a presidential campaign that had to accommodate connectivity needs of a large press contingent, in areas where cell coverage was not adequate. Battery powered mesh networks were set up quickly and later dismantled.

Regarding backhaul, he refers to “a wireless paradox,” namely that WiFi networks require “a lot of wiring” to hook up antennas and access points. Mesh can be used as an alternative to wiring, for backhaul for these network elements.

In the IoT, he notes that sensors have limited transmission range and also must conserve battery power. Here one use for mesh can be to provide dedicated signal repeaters for sensor networks to expand their range.

Client-based Mesh (Or P2P)

The excitement about client-based mesh stems primarily from Apple’s incorporation of its “Multipeer Connectivity Framework,” into iOS 7 (released 2013). This enabled iPhones to connect to each other over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, bypassing the need for a cellular network link. This has led to the proliferation of P2P apps, Open Garden’s FireChat being the most prominent.

Hoque fully recognizes the value of P2P type mesh, for example, in situations where a hostile government shuts down or limits Internet access to its populace (e.g., the Hong Kong 2014 protests when the Chinese government severely censored Internet sites and posts.) He sees P2P as a valuable channel for chat, in such situations and others involving large gatherings, because chat is basically asynchronous communication. He sees a need for store and forward capability for P2P.

Long Term Potential of Mesh And P2P

What is the long term potential for mesh and P2P? Hoque is cautious about predicting any largescale replacement of the cellular networks, regarding it as “a stretch” at least in the more advanced economies.

For P2P he points to limits on range and power consumption as well as traffic routing as issues. He sees more opportunity for P2P in disaster situations and also in developing economies. He refers to a P2P network being used to move health data among rural villages in India.

Our Analysis

At this stage, it’s pretty easy to find observers who will point out the limitations of mesh and P2P networks. These include: limited spectrum availability; power and battery constraints; range limitations (WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee all generally limited to 100 meters or less); line-of-sight typically required between nodes or devices; inability to carry video or large data streams; latency (particularly for P2P).

The issue of spectrum availability may be yesterday’s limitation. Today’s smartphones, of which the iPhone is the best example, have a wide range of spectrum choices. They are no longer limited to only WiFi and UMTS spectrum bands but also have other spectrum alternatives available depending on the type of applications. Examples are Zigbee and smart meter apps that have specific spectrum allocations in addition to telematic bands which have been assigned. The use of the UHF and VHF bands currently being auctioned will open the current distance limitations to dozens of miles. The reach of a mesh network is dependent on the scale and distribution of its member group.

One missing component in this mesh discussion is the opportunity afforded by further hybridization of mesh networking with cloud computing. Just as C-Ran is beginning to be a reality in major wireless infrastructure deployment economics, a similar advance will take place in extending the FireChat type of application to include a cloud optimization service which can assist each mesh group peer to maximize their effectiveness depending on their peer-to-peer capabilities at a given time.

Our take is that the industry is at the beginning of something that is likely to eventually prove highly disruptive. Providers are already working on advances to address some of the other limitations, such as line-of-sight. Open Garden has been developing its Greenstone hardware accessory to increase range and offer store and forward capability.

That company has also expressed the vision of a free largescale messaging network based on its P2P FireChat and is already experimenting with early implementation. (See, e.g.: “This App Is Building a Giant Network for Free Messaging” Wired, 10/12/15.) We also expect the growth of the IoT to foster a good deal of further investment in mesh technology.

There are a multiplicity of drivers for mobile communications that don’t use the cellular grid: cost avoidance; emergencies; lack of coverage by the grid; privacy, etc. We believe this is an area of major importance and activity and will be interested in all areas of off-grid mobile communications.

Note About Concentris: Concentris, Hoque told us, is at the point of considering bringing to market products that embody some of the mesh networking concepts and developments they have worked on for clients. The company also works on middleware for areas such as “disruptive tolerance” issues for apps, e.g., recovering when an app has been disrupted in transmission and also Concentris has been an “idea generator” for issues involved in IoT networking.

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