How mesh networks ease cellphone connectivity issues

Technology helps users now and could save the internet later

By Donovan Myrie - Special Projects Producer, Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

ORLANDO, Fla. - Mesh networks are growing in popularity thanks in part to their ability to ease cellphone service congestion and free up bandwidth, but for many users the technology is still a mystery.

If you’re new to the concept of mesh networking, here’s the simple explanation: the “mesh” part is coverage, like a big blanket, and the “network” part is what kind of technology the “blanket” actually uses. 

In the case of most devices, the blanket is usually Wi-Fi. Mesh Wi-Fi networks are becoming quite popular with systems from Google, Netgear, Linksys and eero. Their advantage is one system gives users consistent coverage, which is great for big homes, old homes with thick plaster walls or filling in dead spots. 

But Wi-Fi systems are only the tip of the iceberg of mesh technology. 

In the instance of a concert, a big event, or even an Orlando City soccer game, cellphone users might struggle to get a signal to send a text or make a phone call because everyone at the event is trying to use the same service all at once. 

“The design of the past 50 or 60 years is very much based on the conventional wisdom that congestion is bad,” said Dr. Kien Hua, director of the Database Systems Laboratory at the University of Central Florida.

Hua’s assessment of how to solve the problem is trying to avoid the congestion by increasing the capacity of the network or moving to a different one.

For the first option, a cellphone service provider such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint will use something called a Cell on Wheels. COWs are usually brought into big events and set up like little mobile cell towers, with more towers meaning more points of access and less congestion. 

The second option is to move to a different network. But how do you go out and just “create” a new cell network? Several groups have figured out how everyday users can set up a new network, in turn bypassing the cellphone companies. 

Can you completely replace your monthly cellphone service? No. Will it work for short distances and short-term usage? Yes. 

It’s all about the Mesh

When Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New York City in 2012, it left many parts of the five boroughs and surrounding suburbs flooded and without electricity. One consequence was a severe bottleneck of cellphone service to the point that some areas such as lower Manhattan lost cell service altogether.

That experience motivated a brother-and-sister team to create a product called goTenna in 2015. The first generation goTenna was based on the idea of connecting phones for simple tasks such as texting while bypassing cell networks. More than two years later, the duo and their small company have a new product out called goTenna Mesh.

“GoTenna Mesh is the lightest, lowest-cost, and longest-lasting fully featured off-grid connectivity solution,” said Rahul Subramany, goTenna product manager. “As the name suggests, it’s able to mesh or relay your texts and GPS locations through other users.”

The new “Mesh” version is 30 percent smaller than the first generation goTenna and weighs less than an Apple Watch.

“We’ve shipped close to 100,000 goTenna Mesh devices so far,” Subramany said.

GoTenna Mesh costs less than $200 for a pair. The small fobs pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth. Users then use an app to send messages and locate each other on goTenna maps.

The devices can also be used as relays for other goTenna users. Range is good for about a mile in cities, and up to 4 miles out in open areas, and batteries last for about 24 hours. GoTennas can be bought directly from the company or on Amazon.com.

“The more people that use goTenna Mesh in an area, the stronger the network becomes,” Subramany said. “Unlike traditional networks like cellular that actually slow down with congestion as more people join, the strength of the goTenna Mesh network increases with density as more people adopt it.”

Subramany said that after Hurricane Irma, some residents of Puerto Rico started building their own mesh networks using goTenna devices.

Two other companies are also vying for a part of the emerging consumer-cellphone-mesh-network pie. 

Beartooth devices cost about $250 a pair. Extra features such as voice communication instead of just texting, a longer range of about 10 miles in the best conditions, longer battery life, and the ability to use a Beartooth as a charger for your phone account for the extra price.

Products are available now, but the company says mesh capabilities will be turned on later this year.

Gotoky mesh network devices -- the name of the company is a play off of walkie-talkie -- work on the same principle as both goTennas and Beartooths. Gotoky also adds real-time navigation to its product/app, group text messaging, longer battery life than the goTenna and an emergency beacon.

Like Beartooths, Gotokys also support phone calls with optimal range topping out at just over 9 miles. Pricing hasn’t been announced and Gotoky devices are still in development. You can however, pre-order the devices now on its website

How does it work and what is this leading to?

The backbone of any mesh network, Wi-Fi or otherwise, is a node. Networks can be as small as a couple or handful of nodes, like goTennas, or as big as hundreds of devices.

In those networks, each node has three roles: transmitter, receiver and bridge for other devices. In the case of goTenna Mesh devices being used in Puerto Rico, devices were linked to phones via Bluetooth and powered by solar chargers as relay stations to widen the network.

“The mesh is more like a web of such nodes. Then you can provide really good coverage for a large area,” Hua said.

Nodes can be attached to anything, including a smart traffic light, a smart camera or even a smart garbage can. All of these things are in place right now, and as technology becomes cheaper and more widespread, more of these devices will be put into place.

“Today, we humans are the primary users of the internet. But in three more years, there’ll be close to 30 billion things on the internet,” Hua said. “They will take over the internet.”

That’s where mesh networking will really be of benefit to society. 

Those 30 billion devices of the future will need a way to talk to each other. To facilitate, devices need a “highway” known throughout the industry as bandwidth. Bandwidth can best be described as the amount of space used to transport internet content such as email, chats, phone conversations, or video.

In fact, video is the biggest user of internet bandwidth: it’s estimated that Netflix alone takes up about 60 percent of internet bandwidth after 7 p.m. each day. Add in YouTube, Hulu and other streaming services, and that number approaches 90 percent.

And what are all these people watching? Pretty much the same thing.

“Ninety-five percent of YouTube requests are for only 5 percent of the videos,” Hua said. “When we go to Netflix, we more or less want to watch the new releases. So mostly we all watch the same thing.” 

Hua theorizes that in the future, mesh networks will incorporate intelligent routers that will “borrow” content from one user and send it -- if it’s the same exact content -- to another user. The result: mesh networks could then “localize” some of the traffic and free up bandwidth for both people and the devices that really need it, reducing congestion of redundant traffic.

“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,” Hua said. 

Mesh networks can also take cellular traffic off of the grid. All phones need a cell tower, or in some cases like T-Mobile, Wi-Fi to make phone calls and send text messages. However, if you are texting someone in the next room, down the hall, or within a few hundred feet of you, does it make sense for that signal to bounce from phone to tower to phone?

“The goTenna network relies on people around you,” Subramany said. “As people join, it easily scales and starts becoming more resilient and more reliable. There are absolutely no centralized points of failure.”

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