It is Time to Consider Wireless Mesh Networking in Our Disaster Recovery Plans

Wireless Mesh Networking (WMN) has been around for quite a few years.  However, not until recently, when protesters in Cairo and Hong Kong used utilities such as Firechat to bypass the mobile phone systems and communicate directly with each other, did mesh networking become well known.

Wireless Mesh Networking WMN establishes an ad hoc communications network using the WiFi (802.11/15/16) radios on their mobile phones and laptops to connect with each other, and extend the connectable portion of the network to any device with WMN software.  Some devices may act as clients, some as mesh routers, and some as gateways.  Of course there are more technical issues to fully understand with mesh networks, however the bottom line is if you have an Android, iOS, or software enabled laptop you can join, extend, and participate in a WMN.

In locations highly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or wildfire, access to communications can most certainly mean the difference between surviving and not surviving.  However, during disasters, communications networks are likely to fail.

The same concept used to allow protesters in Cairo and Hong Kong to communicate outside of the mobile and fixed telephone networks could, and possibly should, have a role to play in responding to disasters.

An interesting use of this type of network was highlighted in a recent novel by Matthew Mather, entitled “Cyberstorm.”  Following a “Cyber” attack on the US Internet and connected infrastructures, much of the fixed communications infrastructure was rendered inoperable, and utilities depending on networks also fell under the impact.  An ad hoc WMN was built by some enterprising technicians, using the wireless radios available within most smart phones.  This allowed primarily messaging, however did allow citizens to communicate with each other – and the police, by interconnecting their smart phones into the mesh.

We have already embraced mobile phones, with SMS instant messaging, into many of our country’s emergency notification systems.  In California we can receive instant notifications from emergency services via SMS and Twitter, in addition to reverse 911.  This actually works very well, up to the point of a disaster.

WMN may provide a model for ensuring communications following a disaster.  As nearly every American now has a mobile phone, with a WiFi radio, the basic requirements for a mesh network are already in our hands.  The main barrier, today, with WMN is the distance limitations between participating access devices.  With luck WiFi antennas will continue to increase in power, reducing distance barriers, as each new generation is developed.

There are quite a few WMN clients available for smart phones, tablets, and WiFi-enabled devices today.  While many of these are used as instant messaging and social platforms today, just as with other social communications applications such as Twitter, the underlying technology can be used for many different uses, including of course disaster communications.

Again, the main limitation on using WMNs in disaster planning today is the limited number of participating nodes (devices with a WiFi radio), distance limitations with existing wireless radios and protocols, and the fact very few people are even aware of the concept of WMNs and potential deployments or uses.  The more participants in a WMN, the more robust is becomes, the better performance the WMN will support, and the better chance your voice will be heard during a disaster.

Here are a couple WMN Disaster Support ideas I’d like to either develop, or see others develop:

  • Much like the existing 911 network, a WMN standard could and should be developed for all mobile phone devices, tablets, and laptops with a wireless radio
  • Each mobile device should include an “App” for disaster communications
  • Cities should attempt to install WMN compatible routers and access points, particularly in areas at high risk for natural disasters, which could be expected to survive the disaster
  • Citizens in disaster-prone areas should be encouraged to add a solar charging device to their earthquake, wildfire, and  other disaster-readiness kits to allow battery charging following an anticipated utility power loss
  • Survivable mesh-to-Internet gateways should be the responsibility of city government, while allowing citizen or volunteer gateways (including ham radio) to facilitate communications out of the disaster area
  • Emergency applications should include the ability to easily submit disaster status reports, including photos and video, to either local, state, or FEMA Incident Management Centers

That is a start.

Take a look at Wireless Mesh Networks.  Wikipedia has a great high-level explanation, and  Google search yields hundreds of entries.  WMNs are nothing new, but as with the early days of the Internet, are not getting a lot of attention.  However maybe at sometime in the future a WMN could save your life.

%d bloggers like this: