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Can mobile mesh networks help in times of crisis?

There’s no doubt that we all take our mobile phones for granted. We expect them to work at a moment’s notice, and why not? That’s what they’re there for. But in times of disaster, natural or man-made, one of the first services to go down is the public communication network, namely the mobile phone networks. This means that many people are left stranded, unable to call for help or communicate with their loved ones when they need it most.

In a recent article on BBC Future, Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Internet Law at Harvard University, promotes the need for a network that works independently of the ones owned and controlled by the network operators and only in an emergency – something called a mesh network.

This idea comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings where people who were urgently wanting to contact friends or family during that time were left unable to do so because of network failures.

However, a mesh network isn’t new; it’s existed for several years with computer networks, but never for mobile phones.

A mesh network could use all the phones currently on the scene to pass along phone calls to outside the crisis zone. For example, the first phone would make a call but find there’s no coverage. Instead, another phone across the street would receive a packet request and pass that on to another phone further down the street, and so on, until eventually the first phone is connected by the entire network of phones.


In the BBC article, Jonathan explains that in times of crisis, people band together to do what they can in order to help people and help fellow citizens. At the most basic level, our instincts tell us to help, but often we can’t:

“There is a strong civic instinct in people, especially in times of crisis where they are eager and anxious to help. And that is an untapped resource that really could through our modern networking be put to work in a way that makes the helper feel better, and be and feel useful, that makes the person helped get help sooner and allows the crisis to scale in its response to meet the requirements of that requirement.”

We figured this would make an interesting topic for discussion here on Conversations.

Is there a need for a mobile mesh network? Is now the right time? What advantages/disadvantages would this have for society? What would be needed to make this happen?

Let’s discuss, below.

Image credit: rpongsaj

Mesh network