How a Small Research Expedition in Northern Canada Revealed the Global Potential of Mesh Networks
Nestled along the frosty banks of the Labrador Sea that trace Canada's Eastern coastline, the remote village of Rigolet, an Inuit community with no roads and no cellular towers, is home to some three-hundred people.
This community is primarily accessible via airplane, snowmobile trails or seasonally by ferry lines that must cut through Newfoundland's sub-Arctic environment to reach the locals.
For the people of Rigolet, whose sustenance is rooted in ancestral traditions that have endured centuries of inhospitable weather and societal isolation, climate change poses a new threat to their survival.
Slow Internet connectivity in the region only compounds the perils of rising sea levels and melting ice for Northern Canada's Indigenous people. This community represents just a small fraction of the four-plus-billion people worldwide who lack reliable online access, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), a financial think tank.
Despite the United Nations designating Internet access as a basic human right, poor infrastructure in remote and underdeveloped regions has still left roughly 50 percent the world's population unconnected. Additionally, a recent analysis of global Internet penetration rates by cloud services provider Akamai found that there are still 35 countries where less than 20 percent of people have access to the web
Like Rigolet, most of the unconnected live in rural or underdeveloped regions, 60 percent of mobile users are confined to a 2G signal, according to a 2016 report from auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). While the developed world has access to more modern 2G and 4G cellular technology, the lack of Internet infrastructure in underdeveloped regions confines most mobile users to end-of-life systems, which transmit data as lethargically as 90s-era modems.
Canadian startup RightMesh is one company leveraging mesh technology to bridge the gap between the connected and unconnected worlds. In Rigolet, where Internet bandwidth is too slow and unreliable to support basic online services like search, email and chat, RightMesh is supporting the Inuit community-led initiative to improve digital inclusion.
Going back to climate change, this partnership is the outgrowth of a mobile-app experiment conducted by various academic researchers and Inuit community leaders, after the latter requested a bespoke app to track changing environmental conditions that threaten to make some ice surfaces unsafe and uninhabitable.
With the eNuk mobile app, researchers aimed to give Rigolet residents an altruistic data and image-sharing platform, enabling them to identify, inform and geo-pin dangerous areas, so others in the community could avoid harm.
"Imagine the ice is thin in a particular area. With mesh network connectivity, a user can take a photo, add comments, drop a geolocation pin, and share the warning with everyone on the network, all without having direct access to the Internet," says RightMesh Chief Networking Scientist, Dr. Jason Ernst.
This information is recorded in a distributed database that helps residents understand the real-time impacts of environmental change on their community. With RightMesh, users can connect and share data with each other without needing any connection to the internet.
Mesh networks activate this connectivity by turning individual devices into mobile routers that send data to its final destination via the most efficient route.
For the majority of the world's people, who live in remote and underdeveloped countries, where over 70 percent live on less than 10 dollars per day, there is no economic incentive for ISPs to provide them with modern 3G and 4G infrastructures.
"As one of the fastest moving technologies in the modern era, the Internet of Things (IoT) stands to be one of the—if not the—primary drivers of the digital transformation. Over the next decade, expect to move even further away from the physical and become submerged in an intangible network of interconnectivity. From changing how we find and buy our favorite products to reshaping how we connect with one another on a more personal level, the IoT introduces us to a more optimized world, opening a host of new opportunities and challenges alike for businesses and consumers," says Bob Reina, Talk Fusion's CEO and Founder.
And in Newfoundland and Labrador, the small concentration of ISPs means established operators get to exert even more price control, with roughly half of all online users confined to a single data provider, according to a 2017 Memorial University study.
The cost of data is so expensive, that functional online connectivity is out of reach for most of Earth's people. In fact, to make Internet connectivity universally accessible, data prices would have to fall by 90 percent, according to the PWC study.
"Mesh networks are revolutionary because they remove ISPs and mobile carriers out of the equation, creating a more equitable online ecosystem by sourcing the power of crowd-based connectivity," says Dr. Ernst.
For example, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, mesh networks could connect the entire population, roughly 24,700 people per square kilometer, with only five-percent mesh penetration, according to a RightMesh white paper.
Rigolet may be a relatively small case study, but the effectiveness of mesh technology in the remote wilderness of Northern Canada has global implications for those left behind by the digital divide.