There has been a lot of excitement about the disruption promised by blockchain technologies. Proponents have argued that blockchain will disrupt a number of industries where profit is extracted by businesses acting as rent-seeking middlemen who produce nothing of actual value.
A real-world example of this disruption can be seen in the success of businesses like AirBnB and Uber, in disrupting well-established industries like hospitality, transportation, and food delivery. We have seen how these businesses exploit inefficiencies in the market to offer a cheaper peer to peer alternative.
Now imagine this disruption on a global economic scale, in every fee-driven industry, even to the point of severely limiting government’s ability to collect taxes or enforce financial regulations. The potential for freedom offered by mesh networks is a cypherpunk’s wet dream.
Cryptocurrencies have shattered the monopoly on money and finance. We have seen regulatory bodies enact a number of reactionary regulatory policies globally, ranging from quite accepting of these new financial technologies, to very restrictive, and outright bans in some countries.
The most effective approach at imposing existing financial regulations onto open source software has been by regulating the businesses that have sprung up around the ecosystem, since they can’t do anything about the actual protocols themselves.
While authorities can’t control blockchain use, they can and do tightly control the links from the crypto world to the traditional finance world, and already have financial surveillance systems in place such as AML/KYC, which they use in tandem with forensic blockchain analysis, to monitor “suspicious” activity.
This effort to control cryptocurrency along with the recent trends in internet censorship such as social media deplatforming and demonetisation, has led to the creation of decentralised alternatives to existing platforms engaging in censorship.
The rationale is, that if they want to surveil and censor content on the internet, let them, we’ll just build a parallel network that is permissionless and decentralised which they simply can’t control, just like blockchains themselves.
Enter mesh networks.
What is a Mesh Network?
To understand mesh networks, you need to have a rudimentary understanding of network topology. Network topology is simply the way the network’s components are arranged. When setting up a network, you can do it in a variety of ways, such as a ring, star, bus, mesh, etc.
Each different topography has it’s advantages and disadvantages, such as relying on a central data server, latency, redundancy to protect against network failure, etc. These same principles also apply to wireless networks which aren’t connected by physical cables.
A mesh network is defined by wikipedia as:
“A mesh network (or simply meshnet) is a local network topology in which the infrastructure nodes (i.e. bridges, switches and other infrastructure devices) connect directly, dynamically and non-hierarchically to as many other nodes as possible and cooperate with one another to efficiently route data from/to clients. This lack of dependency on one node allows for every node to participate in the relay of information. Mesh networks dynamically self-organize and self-configure, which can reduce installation overhead. The ability to self-configure enables dynamic distribution of workloads, particularly in the event that a few nodes should fail. This, in turn, contributes to fault-tolerance and reduced maintenance costs.”
Meshnets can be either full or partial. A full mesh network has each node connected to every other node in the network. A partial mesh network has some nodes organised as full mesh nodes, while other nodes are only connected to a few other nodes on the network.
Partial mesh networks are easier and less expensive to setup, with a trade-off of being less redundant and more vulnerable to network failures. Full mesh networks are typically deployed as backbone infrastructure which is connected to peripheral partial mesh networks.
Meshnets have been used since the 1980s by the military to setup ad hoc communications networks in the field, but due to the resources required, civilian use of the tech didn’t come into play until much more recently.
Civilian adoption was made possible by rapid technological advances in wireless technology over the past decade, which made it feasible for hobbyists to deploy their own mesh network radio nodes.
This has led to number of public, community-run decentralised meshnets in major cities worldwide, as meetups, hobbyist clubs, and social media groups have organised around the technology.
Mesh Networks and Blockchain – A cypherpunk love affair
Now that we have a decent understanding of meshnets, let’s take a look at some of the blockchain projects that are implementing this revolutionary wireless technology and how they’re doing it.
Satellite nodes have been pioneered as a way to provide network redundancy and resistance to a central point of failure for blockchains. Satellite nodes allow for blockchain data to be broadcast from a low-earth orbit satellite, allowing anyone with a satellite dish to sync their own node to the network. Satellite nodes offer various advantages beyond network reliability and security, such as allowing people to use blockchain technology without internet, low transaction costs, privacy, and censorship-resistance.
One can easily setup a node with a cheap tv satellite, a raspberry pi, and a few freely available open source apps. This dramatically reduces the barrier to entry for those without access to resources or infrastructure, while greatly protecting user privacy and security. Several blockchains are working on satellite nodes and integrating them with decentralized terrestrial meshnets.
Other meshnet use cases include IOT (internet of things) and payment channels and payment networks built on top of underlying blockchains, like Bitcoin’s Lightning Network, Z-Cash’s Bolt, or Ethereum’s Raiden. Payments are routed through the network’s nodes until they reach the destination, almost instantly, with very little fees. This has been seen as the most realistic scaling solution for the throughput limitations inherent in distributed networks.
Bitcoin, Blockstream Satellite, & Gotenna Mesh
The most famous blockchain satellite implementation is Blockstream’s which broadcasts the Bitcoin blockchain from space. Gotenna is a wireless mesh device that allows you to use your phone for texting without cellular coverage. They have integrated with Samourai wallet and the TXtenna android app to allow offline transactions broadcast via sms text messages. You can now spend and receive Bitcoin without cell coverage or being online, from anywhere.
Qtum & Spacechain
Qtum and Spacechain have partnered to broadcast the Qtum blockchain from a Satellite node as well. Qtum is a blockchain that utilizes the underlying technology of both Bitcoin and Ethereum in their own hybrid smart contract platform. Spacechain launched as an ICO for community deployed satellite nodes on the Qtum platform, has its own token, and operates the satellite broadcasting the Qtum chain.
Smartmesh, Raiden, and Ethereum
Smartmesh is a project aimed at integrating IOT with Ethereum’s Raiden payments layer. Smartmesh would bring meshnet to Ethereum online and off, creating a parallel network to the existing internet which is decentralised and permissionless. Smartmesh launched on Ethereum as an ICO and has its own token.
Rightmesh is another ambitious meshnet project on Ethereum. Rightmesh integrates patent-pending technology for routing and data integrity for a secure and decentralized mesh network aimed at connecting millions of unconnected people worldwide. Rightmesh has been designed to use existing devices like android phones. Rightmesh also has its own token.
Nexus Satellite and Groundmesh
Nexus is yet another blockchain smart contract platform which has envisioned satellite nodes integrated with a terrestrial meshnet. Nexus partnered with Vector Space Systems, and utilises their galactic sky satellite network and software platform. Nexus plans on making their designs open source so the community can launch 300 satellite nodes to offer global coverage with low latency.
LoraWan stands for Low Power Wide Area Network and it is a promising open source meshnet protocol. It is backed by the Lora Alliance which is a nonprofit consisting of 500 member companies dedicated to large scale deployment of LoraWan for wireless meshnets and IOT applications. LoraWan has seen a lot of interest recently within the Bitcoin community who have been experimenting with implementing the technology for offline transactions.
Advantages of Mesh Networks
Even though the underlying technology for meshnets has been around for a while, it’s only recently that they have been made affordable to deploy on a wide scale, by non-corporate or governmental organizations.
Meshnets offer a level of accessibility and versatility unseen with today’s centralized internet service provider infrastructure. Meshnets have the potential to connect almost 4 billion unconnected people and usher them into the information age.
Meshnets offer advances in privacy and security along with free, open and permissionless access to modern communications infrastructure that could eventually rival and surpass our existing internet iteration. Alongside this, bypassing the nasty censorship and surveillance capitalism aspects that users have learned to loathe. Meshnets have the potential to become internet 2.0 especially with the native integration of blockchain value transfer protocols.
Meshnets stand to be an alternative to the existing internet if governments, regulators, and law enforcement decide to flip the internet kill switch, increase censorship, keep restricting access, or otherwise use their resources to attack blockchain technologies. Basically, meshnets open a Pandora’s box of freedom that totalitarians will find difficult to shut down.
Disadvantages of Mesh Networks
The first disadvantage of getting a blockchain up and running with a decentralized mesh network is the cost of launching a space-based node on a cubesat (mini satellite). It can typically cost up to $40,000 USD to launch the satellite node, and the mini satellite itself can cost up to $10,000.
Another disadvantage is the complexity of setting up the terrestrial mesh network itself. Designing a mesh network is not an easy task and requires a great degree of planning. Adding more nodes to the network increases complexity of the network itself. Another issue, is network latency. The data being sent across the network could be subject to delays depending on the way the network is constructed. Mesh networks also require a lot of hardware to set up, and a lot of maintenance to maintain network redundancy.
We are just witnessing the emergence of this truly exciting and revolutionary communications infrastructure upgrade. The potential commercial applications for technologies like LoraWan, Gotenna, and Rightmesh may allow for a completely free and open anarcho-capitalist society to manifest, fulfilling the cypherpunk utopian dreams of diehard cryptocurrency adopters.
Imagining the impact these types of decentralized alternatives will have on the future is akin to predicting the long-term impact of blockchain. It’s hard to imagine the kinds of innovation that will arise from all this development and experimentation. Offline cryptocurrency transactions are one of the most exciting things happening in the whole blockchain space at present.