Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Often when natural disasters strike, cell towers are among the first affected, yet it's in such circumstances that connectivity is most vital. Thousands of people — in some cases millions — could be at risk if emergency messages cannot reach them. The ideal scenario would be the ability to relay caveats such as flood alerts and tsunami warnings even when no network is available.
IBM has developed a system that it believes can create a robust communications network in times of crisis. Together with The Weather Company, a recently-acquired subsidiary of IBM, it has launched a peer-to-peer mesh networking app for countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to deliver weather alerts even in areas with limited Internet or mobile connectivity. The smartphone app can store weather data offline for up to 24 hours and offers users the choice to update on Wi-Fi, cellular or on request.
IBM's Mesh Network Alerts technology uses a handset's built-in radio hardware to make peer-to-peer connections with other nearby devices, and send emergency alerts from phone to phone. The signal is transmitted across a series of devices, enabling people to stay informed even when the cellular or Wi-Fi network is down. In such a mesh-network topography, the more devices that join, the more capable the network, so critical mass is needed for it to be truly useful. This is the inverse of a cellular network that becomes sluggish when too many clients are connected simultaneously.
Even when traditional communications are hampered, a daisy-chain of networked devices can stay connected and continue to pass along information. Mesh networking has been employed by the military to create ad hoc networks and more recently used in events such as the Arab Spring and Hong Kong's mass protests in 2014. Furthermore, mesh networks are increasingly used by makers of Wi-Fi routers as a simple way to create consistent connectivity across residences. Asset trackers such as Tile also lean on crowd-sourced connections to complement the power of location, building a community of customers.
IBM said that the team behind the app is working with national meteorological services worldwide to help broadcast severe-weather alerts issued by governments even if a country's existing infrastructure has been affected.
IBM's approach differs from that of companies such as Facebook and Google, which are experimenting with drones and balloons to spread mobile signals. IBM uses a network of devices, which can be in millions of pockets in a densely crowded area: smartphones.
The project is certainly commendable, but there are more casual purposes for mobile mesh networks. Smartphone apps such as Jott are being used by hundreds of thousands, especially by junior and high-school children to send messages to each other or to a group using a network of smartphones. This type of app has become particularly popular in areas with a dense population of smartphone users such as schools.
There are also new standards emerging for mesh networking including Bluetooth Mesh, which is an attempt to harmonise a fragmented set of technologies around something that's already in all smartphones. It's not clear why IBM opted to develop a new and proprietary protocol — and increase fragmentation — rather than use a standard.
Although it's unlikely that millions of phones will be used to permanently replace thousands of base stations, app-based phone mesh networks are an intriguing way to bring connectivity through cooperation.