Sep 29, 2017 8:00 AM PT

Weird IP networks: Internet via birds and ham radios

When disaster strikes and internet access is knocked out, how can you communicate? Ham radios and IP over Avian Carriers are two options.

Andreas Trepte - Own work (CC BY-SA 2.5)

If you're reading this, you have internet access.

You probably have it either through a local cable or fibre ISP or through your cell phone provider. We all have one (usually both) of these.

Speedy. Reliable (mostly). Boring.

What happens when that infrastructure goes down? Maybe the power goes out somewhere along the network. Maybe a cell tower gets attacked by Godzilla. Who knows? Dangers lurk around every corner. 

+ Also on Network World: When disasters strike, edge computing must kick in +

In those cases, when your traditional network connection fails you, you're going to need a backup. Something to get you back up, online and moving data around. And, what the heck, we might as well do it all with as much flair and pizzazz as possible.

There are two options that jump out at me as ideally suited for just such a Godzilla-based-network-outage scenario. 

Networking via ham radio 

The first is AMPRNet. The AMateur Packet Radio Network. 

At first, sure, it sounds like a crazy idea. But did you know that the TCP/IP protocol was in use via amateur radio (ham) before the internet was accessible to the public? It's true! 

In fact, back in the 1970s, the entire "44" class A block of IP addresses (example: "44.0.0.1") was assigned specifically for use via amateur radio. Because of that, this is sometimes called "Network 44." 

Believe it or not, many people use it to this very day. HamWAN, in western Washington state, has set up what it calls the "Puget Sound Data Ring." Essentially a bunch of sites, all around that region, are connected up to AMPRNet. 

Super cool.

Networking via birds

But what if the power is out at the AMPRNet site you'd like to connect to? What if Godzilla takes that out, too?

In those sorts of scenarios, it makes sense to go a little more old-school.

"More old-school than ham radios being used to hop online in the 1970s?!"

Way more. We're going back to ye olden times here.

I'm talking internet via... carrier pigeon.

"IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC)" – also known as RFC 1149 – was first created back April of 1990 (specifically *ahem* April 1, 1990). It describes, essentially, using a bird to carry a piece of data.

Just like in Game of Thrones. Only different.

This isn't just some one-off April Fool’s joke. No, sir! IPoAC has actually been updated. Twice! Once to add "Quality of Service" levels to the specification (a la "Coach," "First Class," "Business Class") and once to add support for IPv6

Now, if you're thinking that transmitting IP data via homing pigeon would be slow, you'd be half right.

In 2001, a user group attempted to implement the first-ever, real-world, implementation of such an avian-based protocol. And a successful implementation it was!

The result of the very first "ping" via bird reads as follows:

"64 bytes from 10.0.3.1: icmp_seq=0 ttl=255 time=6165731.1 ms"

They "lost a few packets" in their testing – hey, birds don't always do exactly what you want – with the ping times ranging from 3,211 seconds to 6,389 seconds. Yeah. Over 100 minutes. For a ping. Not exactly speedy.

But, consider this: You can send very (very) large amounts of data on a single bird. With how small SD cards and USB flash drives have become, it wouldn't be unreasonable to send a single bird with several terabytes of storage. Suddenly making IP over Avian Carriers one of the fastest methods of transmitting data via IP on the planet.

Assuming the bird actually goes where you want it to go.