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How the Hong Kong protests can impact the Internet of Things

FireChat, the communication app of choice among Hong Kong protesters, is shedding light on mesh networking's potential benefit for the Internet of Things.

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Credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A lot of people trying to keep up with the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have surely come across mention of FireChat, the mobile app that protesters are using to communicate without bringing down their cellular networks or relying on a network the government can either monitor or shut down.

Quite often, these mentions of FireChat, which are appearing in mainstream news articles like the New York Times and the Washington Post, are followed by a one- or two-sentence description of mesh networking, the technology that makes FireChat so valuable to protesters. In the interest of clarity, here’s my personal favorite breakdown of how the technology works, from a January article in Wired:

An ad hoc network infrastructure that can be set up by anyone, mesh networks wirelessly connect computers and devices directly to each other without passing through any central authority or centralized organization (like a phone company or an ISP). They can automatically reconfigure themselves according to the availability and proximity of bandwidth, storage, and so on; this is what makes them resistant to disaster and other interference. Dynamic connections between nodes enable packets to use multiple routes to travel through the network, which makes these networks more robust.

Compared to more centralized network architectures, the only way to shut down a mesh network is to shut down every single node in the network.

That’s the vital feature, and what makes it stronger in some ways than the regular internet.

Not all explanations of mesh networking are this clear, but they all at least bring some awareness to the technology. This could be important as the Internet of Things continues to creep into homes and businesses, presenting networking challenges – and business opportunities – of its own.

Open Garden, the company behind FireChat, has also recognized these problems and how mesh networking can address them. Last month, at the CTIA Trade Show in Las Vegas, the company announced The Open Garden Network, a software system designed to help IoT devices connect to one another through a mesh network. It seems like a perfect fit – dozens of connected devices developing sensor data and a method of networking that connects devices within close proximity to one another, allowing them to communicate without relying on or consuming the bandwidth of other networks.

One app using The Open Garden Network that was cited in several articles on the announcement shows just how mesh networking could use smartphones to make the IoT more valuable. TrackR is a combination of a small tag roughly the size of a quarter and what TrackR calls a “crowd GPS network.” The idea is that users attach the tag to their pet or their keys so when they go missing, the tag will show their whereabouts on a mobile app.

Mesh networking is essential to this system because, as a TechCrunch article on the system explained, “you can only find your keys if they have some way to reach the Internet, after all.”

TrackR’s solution to this is to create a mesh network of every TrackR user within proximity of each every TrackR tag. The tag sends its location to its owner whenever another TrackR user comes within 100 feet of it and reestablishes its connection to the network.

Of course, a system like TrackR requires a large user base. Thankfully for Open Garden and other companies in this space, protesters in Hong Kong are indirectly raising awareness of mesh networking technology worldwide. Companies looking to capitalize on its relationship with other profitable trends, the Internet of Things included, might look back on the protests as a turning point.

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