With nearly 5 billion mobile phone users worldwide, mobile networks are the most powerful communication technology systems today. But they are still centralized, top-down networks wherein a cellular provider disseminates signal to receiving devices. Revealed at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, a new mesh network technology by Peep Wireless promises a decentralized, lateral alternative to existing networks. Using peer-to-peer technology, users would be able to share access to other mobile devices, essentially extending the reach of the network by transforming each mobile device into a mini-cell-towers capable of receiving data and transmitting it to other devices.
Mesh networks, of course, aren’t a new concept. Though developed much earlier, they have been applied mainly to wi-fi technology and were arguably introduced into mainstream awareness by Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project, which employed a peer-to-peer wi-fi mesh network between the devices, often deployed in areas of the developing world where cellular networks have little or no coverage.
But what makes Peep’s concept particularly timely and promising is that it can transform any mobile device, from the simplest single-function phone to the latest i-Whatever, into a miniature cell tower — a powerful proposition at a time when net neutrality debates are violently ablaze and the prospect of communication monopolies is looming with more doom than ever. Though conceived with the developing world in mind — where mesh networks are not only faster and cheaper to build but can even be more robust — Peep’s technology has the potential to be even more disruptive in the developed world, providing not only a technological revolution but also an ideological paradigm shift that democratizes communication systems and offers a viable alternative to Big Telecom.
Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, GOOD Magazine, Design Observer and Huffington Post, and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.