Q&A: A conversation with UCF's Dr. Kien Hua on mesh networking

Hua says mesh-networks will play big role in future

ORLANDO, Fla. – In our occasional series of presenting edited versions of content that didn’t make it into our on-air coverage, we turn this week to technology. News 6 reporter Adrianna Iwasinski recently spoke with Dr. Kien Hua, director of the Database Systems Laboratory at UCF. The topic: mesh networks.

The technology is here and it could play a big part in the future of the internet. In fact, with so many more devices connecting to the internet, mesh networking might be the thing that keeps humans connected.

Why? Because the machines are taking over. Read on:

Iwasinski: This is not science fiction? This is real? 

Dr. Hua: Today, we humans are the primary users of the internet. But in three more years, they’ll be close to 30 billion things on the internet. They will take over the internet. They will be the primary user of the internet. And they are there to support real-time decision-making. So that means they have to constantly monitor the environment and constantly inform us of any event. 
Iwasinski: So, in a couple of sentences, what exactly is a mesh network?

Dr. Hua: Today, mostly we access the internet through something called the hot spot or basically the router at home. The problem is that if we are not within the radio range, then we are not connected. So a solution would be between you and the access point (that gets you on the internet), you can deploy something called a mesh node.

The mesh (part) is more like a web of such nodes that can provide really good coverage for a large area so people in this greater range of this mesh can now have access. 

Iwasinski: And is it being deployed right now?

Dr. Hua: Right now, (mesh networking is) mainly used in the home. I’m sure that we all experience some time in the house, some corner have better signal than the other and also might experience dead-zones that have no signal at all. And the reason is because we are too far from the Wi-Fi routers. So one way to address the dead zones and provide better coverage for the whole house is to deploy the mesh nodes. So we can have the small mesh network within the house. And that same idea can be scaled up to cover an entire city for instance to facilitate small city applications like for safety and to improve the efficiency of the city to enhance the customers lifestyle. 

Iwasinski: So is mesh-networking basically a way to hop-scotch to the hot-spot using people who have the technology?

Dr. Hua: Yes. So if you are within radio range of any of the mesh nodes, then through the hopping you can connect to the gateway that has access to the internet.

Iwasinski: And how does that help put less strain on Internet connectivity and bandwidth? How does that actually help all together?

Dr. Hua: Every gateway provides you one way to the internet. So if you have more bandwidth to the Internet within a mesh network, then you can deploy multiple gateways so that way you have more gateways to the internet. 

Iwasinski: What about video? Video takes up a lot of bandwidth, right?

Dr. Hua: Video very much dominates the traffic on the internet. And it’s actually 70 percent of the traffic on the internet is video. And that becomes even more challenging for the wireless environment because we even have less bandwidth here. 

Ninety-five percent of YouTube requests are for only 5 percent of the videos. When we go to Netflix, we more or less want to watch the new releases. So mostly we all watch the same thing. So what that means is that the video traffic on the Internet and ultimately over the wireless mesh network are really the same thing. So if you start a video stream, and I request exactly the same video a few minutes later, there’s no reason why the server has to send two separate streams to you and me. 

If we have intelligent mass nodes, or an intelligent router on the internet, it can recognize that. 

Iwasinski: Are there any local facilities or local cities that are using mesh networking right now?

Dr. Hua: Smart buildings are quite popular. They certainly do that in more advanced buildings, smart buildings, smart structures. 

Iwasinski: Let’s talk about when a city undergoes something like a hurricane. This could really help in that because when wireless networks are down, with these mesh networks, you could still function.

Dr. Hua: Absolutely – in fact it’s not quite in the commercial world yet, but it’s in the lab and could be designed. Imagine a flying mesh network. So the mesh node you can think about as quad-copters, those are drones. So the mesh network will actually fly above you to form a mesh, a web of a network to know where the users are and they’ll follow you. In the case of a natural disaster, the responders - sometimes they have to come in as hundreds. Sometimes break into groups and this mesh node will know that and has the intelligence to break into groups themselves to facilitate not only communication within the groups but also among groups. 

Iwasinski: Is there a limit to what you can do with a mesh network?

Dr Hua: To make it economically feasible, you want to have a good enough density of users in order to justify and to deploy such a network and still be profitable. As long as the density is there, the user is there. It’s fairly profitable to deploy to provide better coverage so you can have more users and therefore more income. But technology-wise, there is not a limitation there. If there’s a critical reason that you need to deploy, the profit is not the priority and certainly you can still leverage this technology.   

Iwasinski: Will mesh technology ever be built into a smartphone? (In his next answer, Hua refers to a goTenna mesh device we brought to the interview).

Dr. Hua: Someday, this will be small enough that it can integrate into your phone so you don’t have to carry this in your pocket and also a phone. The two can become one unit. So your phone certainly has the computing capability, it just doesn’t have the range that can reach that far. And that’s what this is designed for. It provides the wider range that your phone doesn’t have.  

Iwasinski: So this is the wave of the future? This is what we’re going to start doing in order to make communication more efficient.

Dr. Hua: It’s emerging technology that might bring the dreams of a connected world and that can facilitate all kinds of applications.

About the Authors:

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise