Editor’s Introductory Note: The following primer introduces mesh networking. As a survivalist, I see the biggest limitations of present-day mesh networks are that: A.) Most are urban, and B.) Most are dependent on the continuity of grid power. But one implementation of mesh networking that overcomes both of those limitations is sold under the trade name GoTenna. A competing brand is called Radacat. Either of these will enable your existing Android or iOS phones to become Mesh devices that will continue to work in text mode even if the power grid and cellular networks go down. They both also have GPS capability. They need to be used in at least pairs. At under $160 per pair, that is a viable option for fairly secure communications at a group retreat or for comms between nearby rural neighbors. If you have teenage kids that are heavily smartphone and text dependent, then I recommend that you get them these. This way, they can at least keep in touch with their neighbor friends. That may help keep them sane, sensible, and productively coordinating local security, in the midst of TEOTWAWKI.
The historical photo that I chose for the top of this article (just for fun) is of the Newark, New Jersey Police Department, demonstrating a two-way UHF radio, back in the 1940s. I suppose we should call them Early Adopters.
I recently finished reading Matthew Mather’s novel Cyber Storm, which I found to be incredibly well-woven, and appreciated just how tangible Mather’s makes living in a world post-cyberattack without any power. Throughout the story, Mather’s characters make extensive use of a technology called mesh networking. I’d never heard of this term before. I found it fascinating, and began to delve deeper into the research behind “meshnets” to figure out just how they worked, and what benefits and services they could provide in a post-disaster situation.
What is Mesh Networking?
During normal day-to-day life, when you want to call somebody on your cell phone, your phone first transmits your signal to the nearest cell tower. The tower then transmits that same information to the recipient cell phone. The tower can ping the information along the way to other nearby towers to get the message across the entire USA, but what do you do if the cell towers are down? What do you do if there aren’t even any around anywhere?
Enter mesh networking. This is also known as peer-to-peer communications networking.
Originally created by the US military to aid in communications in out-of-reach areas, a meshnet allows you to use individual “nodes” – whether that be another cell phone, a laptop, or other wireless device – to continue to ping your message along until it reaches the correct recipient.1 The message jumps node-to-node via short hops. That way, if the grid is down or there’s some kind of obstacle blocking your cell signal, you can still communicate.
Imagine a Ferris Wheel
Let’s say that you’re at an amusement park with a gigantic Ferris wheel. In cases where there is something which is interfering with your reception (e.g. a large metal Ferris wheel), wouldn’t it be nice to still be able to communicate with people on the other side?
A mesh net can actually bounce the signal from node to node around the Ferris wheel so that there is no obstruction in the first place. This is a major part of the cool-factor with a meshnet. A collection of nodes, known as a mesh cloud, is self-forming and self-healing.2 If one node is out, then the mesh cloud will automatically adjust for that by bouncing the signals to other nodes around the damaged one instead. As a result of these small jumps between nodes, a meshnet will even work in train tunnels, sewers, and caves provided that the nodes can “see” each other.
Just think of the potential here.
It’s a complete lack of reliance on any one node (unlike a cell tower, which may be your only means of cell reception for a given area otherwise). There’s redundancy built within a meshcloud. The old adage of “one is none” applies here.
Let’s say that you’re at home when a sudden tornado rips through your hometown. Your wife is a nurse on the third floor of the local hospital, and is in the middle of a shift there when the tornado crashes through everything, completely wiping out cell reception in your area. Mesh networking would still allow you to contact her in such a situation to ensure that she is okay.
Sure, ham radio could work as well in such a situation, but what do you do if your spouse has zero desire or ability to complete such a test? Is there not an easier solution? Personally, I think that a meshnet is the solution even here. I mean, all you have to do is download an app to your smartphone. How hard is that?
Mesh Networking is Secure
Even if the grid isn’t down, I’ve discovered that I enjoy using a meshnet more than regular cell towers now. Why? Because there are some advantages that you get from using a meshnet that you just don’t get otherwise.
In addition to the communication potential, meshnets are often incredibly secure as well. Protestors in Hong Kong and Taiwan used a meshnet known as FireChat in order to organize without the government intercepting their messages and arresting individuals involved in the protests ahead of time.3,4 Many journalists in dangerous countries utilize meshnets as well in order to keep their communications secure and encrypted.
If you want to ensure what you send is not being spied on by somebody you don’t want to see it, meshnets are the way to go.
Here are a few of the meshnet tchnologies that are under development:
As far as I’m concerned, this is the original and best meshnet out there. It utilized BlueTooth and WiFi to transmit messages node-to-node without ever having to access mobile or broadband. On top of all this, FireChat now utilizes end-to-end encryption, an incredibly secure way of ensuring that nobody else is peeking at your messages. You can send pictures through it, create group conversations of up to 50 people, create public chat rooms, and block users at your discretion.5 For more details, see the Firechat website.
Using Viber was my first experience with meshnets. I can make audio calls through it, send voice and video messages, it’s encrypted, and it works great. I’ve been in a town 1.5 hours away from my wife, and been able to communicate with her via Viber virtually instantaneously. That’s incredible. You can learn more about it at their web site: Viber.com
More Thoughts on Mesh Networking
Honestly, if I were you, I would download both of these apps to my family’s phones right now. Why both? Because meshnets only work if there is a large enough number of nodes available for the messages to be relayed. The more nodes within the net, the more effective the meshnet is. So if not enough people in my area have Viber, and my post-disaster communication doesn’t work via that method, I can then utilize FireChat and see if I have more success that way instead. Again, “One is none”.
Theoretically, you could create your own mesh network throughout your locale by strategically placing your own nodes. Let’s say I lived on a 1,000 acre ranch somewhere out in the middle of Texas with little to no cell reception. Strategically placed nodes throughout my property would then give me the ability to contact and be contacted by anybody I needed to on my property virtually instantaneously, whether that be a hunter, ranch hand, or whatever.
The same principle could apply for urban prepping. If you lived in a large city, nodes strategically placed at your friends’, your house, your office, your gym locker, your car, and so on could help to ensure that you always have a means to contact who you need to contact. The great thing about Firechat and Viber though are that odds are you won’t even need to place your own nodes. Other people willingly act as nodes when they download the apps as well, yet they can’t access your data. So in a large urban area with a population in the tens of thousands, odds are likely that a good portion of the area already has Firechat and Viber.
What about in disaster relief scenarios? Let’s say there’s another Hurricane Katrina-style event the next state over from yours. If your church sends in a disaster relief team to help rebuild, give aid, and search for survivors, a meshnet could help your relief team be able to communicate with each other in a devastated area without any other communication resources.
One of the things I’ve been trying to do around my farm of late is to increase its resilience to life’s daily nudges. Mushroom logs, raised beds, fruit trees, and water barrels have all been installed as a result in order to help to ensure that things go smoothly when garbage happens. That way if one crop fails, I’ll have others. If it doesn’t rain, I can still water my livestock. We add layers of protection to ourselves in other matters on a daily basis by wearing a seatbelt, driving carefully, and not driving drunk to keep ourselves from getting into car accidents. We save for retirement, eat healthy, and regularly workout to help ensure we stay well when we are older.
Why not add multiple layers of security to our means of communication as well? Sure, getting your ham radio license is a great start, but what do you do if something happens to your radio, the person you want to contact doesn’t know how to use one, or their radio gets fried? An extra layer of security could really help out in such a situation. And downloading FireChat and Viber are an incredibly simple way to do just that.
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