Particle – which used to be called Spark – has released the third generation of their tiny, networked computing boards. Their new product, called Mesh, allows you to connect wither to a Wi-Fi or cellular network but also allows you to create a mesh network between multiple Mesh devices. This lets you create a mesh network similar to popular IoT devices from Nest and Netgear. The system, called Thread, lets you select which network you’d like to use – Wi-Fi, LTE, or even Bluetooth Low Energy – and then offers programming via OpenThread technology.
There are three models, the Argon, the Boron, and the Xenon. The Boron, $29, supports LTE while the Argon, $15, connects to Wi-Fi and the $9 Xenon connects only via Bluetooth.
The Particle Mesh essentially allows you to create large mesh networks of sensors, letting you connect multiple disparate devices together wirelessly in order to collect a wider range of data. You could, for example, connect to a pressure sensor to control gas or water valves or put it on a farm to sense soil moisture.
It is shipping in July and is available for pre-sale now.
“In the five years since we launched our first Wi-Fi and cellular connected hardware, more than 140,000 developers have brought their devices online with Particle,” said Zach Supalla, co-founder, in a release. “From the front lines of bringing IoT to life, our developer community uncovered challenges with building local networks, so we designed Mesh to better connect those spaces in between. We’re excited to see the next wave of real IoT take hold by solving real problems with connected products.”
Open Garden launched its mesh networking platform at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2012. Since then, the company has gone through a few iterations and found unexpected success in its Firechat offline messaging service. Now, it’s ready for the next step in its evolution. The company now wants to make it easier for anybody with an Android phone to share their WiFi connections with anyone who is nearby. And to incentivize people to do so, the company plans to launch its own Ethereum token (called OG…) in early 2018.
The company bills this as the launch of a “decentralized Internet Service Provider (ISP).” You still need a regular ISP to become an Open Garden ISP, so I admit that the whole concept doesn’t quite seem right to me. Unsurprisingly, Open Garden CEO Paul Hainsworth (who took over from the company’s founded CEO in early 2016) doesn’t see it that way. “The concept of a decentralized ISP is entirely new,” he told me. “The traditional, centralized ISP is a one-to-many relationship between provider and customer. A decentralized ISP is the combination of millions of individual people, companies and products creating a new kind of network. These millions of people sharing their Internet are ISPs, tiny or large, and in aggregate they form a decentralized ISP.”
The argument here is that most people only use a small amount of their broadband connection’s bandwidth cap. So why not share this access with others and earn some OG in the process? While Open Garden argues that this is a totally new concept, the likes of Fon and others have long enabled WiFi sharing without the need for Ethereum tokens and mesh networks. Most have done so with mixed success, likely because few people actually want to share their Internet access.
A decentralized network like this can also only work if enough people participate. Open Garden is trying to jumpstart this process by using its FireChat app to bootstrap this process. The company says its messaging service has over 5 million registered users and they will form the basis for seeding this network. Over time, Open Garden also plans to add apps for iOS, Mac, Windows and set-top streaming boxes. “Project OpenGarden, our open source project, will enable developers to build OG into their own apps and hardware solutions,” the company argues. “OG can be used by existing WiFi infrastructure owners – such as municipal WiFi, shopping malls, stadiums, airports, restaurants, and small businesses – to monetize their existing capital investment.”
And why use tokens (besides, I assume, that this is obviously a hip thing to do right now)? “Our intent is to enable regular consumers to buy Internet access without having to understand anything about crypto, blockchains or anything technical,” Hainsworth told me. He also argues that tokens are a good way to incentivize growth. “By issuing our own token, instead of just using Bitcoin or Ethereum, we can give away a very large percentage of the total tokens (or coins) in our economy to participants,” he noted. “We do this to incentivize network growth, user acquisition and retention. Incentives work at an individual level. Early adopters can earn additional bonus OG for being first to market, for example.”
When goTenna put out their Mesh device earlier this year, I thought the off-grid communication gadgets would be great for an emergency kit or back country hike. But it turns out that both I and goTenna underestimated the demand for a resilient, user-powered mesh network: thousands of dedicated nodes now populate cities across the country, and volunteers are using them to get Puerto Rico back online after a devastating hurricane season.
The Mesh works a lot like the original goTenna, which pairs to your phone using Bluetooth, then uses walkie talkie radio frequencies to send text communications (no cell network necessary) to another device paired to someone else’s phone — perhaps a mile or two away.
What the Mesh added was the ability to relay those messages: a chain or group of the devices will hear the message (it’s encrypted, of course) and pass it on until it reaches its destination. You can even set your Mesh up as a stationary relay, which in concert with other devices might let entire neighborhoods or even cities communicate even in case of a power or telecommunications outage.
I’ve always found mesh networks compelling, but I just sort of assumed they would emerge out of the proliferation of wireless devices we already have: phones, routers, laptops. But so far no one has been about to unify the clans and produce some kind of universal relay protocol. The goTenna Mesh, of course, is built for it out of the box. (I have a couple units they sent me to review, but have only had the chance to text the most basic features.)
When I talked to Daniela Perdomo, founder and CEO of goTenna, around the time of the Mesh launch, a handful of early users had registered their devices on a map and forum the company started called IMeshYou. She said they hadn’t even thought to create it until users started emailing them asking for something like it.
“What I didn’t expect, and what was obvious to other people, is this power to create your own networks,” said Perdomo. And sure enough, the map has exploded with devices.
The exact number of nodes changes regularly, since only some are permanent “fixed relays” (indicated by a lightning bolt) and the others may come and go. But it’s clearly a popular use case for the people who have bought a Mesh device — numbering nearly 100,000 now, Perdomo revealed.
“The network layer we’re creating here is new,” she said. “Some people thought this was junk spectrum — but we can create an always available, bottom up, decentralized mesh network like this. If things go down, you can’t have Netflix, but you can say ‘hey, meet me here.'”
You could deploy it one time and forget about it; a solar-powered stationary relay will operate continuously or wait patiently until it’s needed.
It turns out that’s a particularly compelling use case when you live on, say, an island where the communications infrastructure has been devastated by a series of hurricanes. The company has embraced the opportunity to help the disconnected citizens of Puerto Rico, and to show the potential of a user-powered telecommunications network.
Meshing up San Juan
“After the hurricane, reports were that 93 percent of telecommunications were down, and I can tell you, it felt like 100%,” explained Javier Malavé, director of the PR Reconnects project. “I drove around and all the antennas were down, the satellite dishes were down, the transport and backbone layers were down.”
In other words, it wasn’t just about getting a generator to power up cell towers — generators and fuel were hard enough to come by anyway — even if you could, they wouldn’t be able to connect to the backbone. Especially in the inland communities where infrastructure was already tenuous, people were completely disconnected.
“If you don’t have backhaul, forget about Wi-Fi or internet,” he said. “After a little brainstorming, we thought the best solution would be something that can provide at least text communication in an area.”
“Part of my reason for starting GoTenna was Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “So it’s really personally fulfilling to see something that came out of a storm like this… you know, help people in a storm like this.”
They shipped down some devices to help Malavé and a couple volunteers mesh up San Juan — no small task, he noted, owing to the way the city is constructed.
This looks like a good spot.
“In Puerto Rico we basically live in basically RF bunkers,” he said. If you just have an RF device in the living room of your place in the city, “the signal won’t even make it out of your house.”
“We had to actually map things out,” he continued. “We talked with an agronomist who drove us around and found spots where you had line of sight to other places. We went house by house asking people to let us have access to their roof to put a solar charger and a GoTenna.”
Getting people on the app was similarly challenging. With no internet, they couldn’t download it, and while sideloading was sometimes an option, people are unlikely to just hand over their phone and say “Sure, attach your weird flash drive and load up some software I’ve never heard of.”
So they ended up having to cut the Gordian Knot: “We just bought iPod touches.” Expensive, but the idea wasn’t to get every single citizen back online, just restore some basic conveniences.
Barranquitas is a small town located in the mountainous center of the island, where lacking telecommunications the people were getting information around the old-fashioned way: walking. “The parish has this organic network of communication,” said Malavé. But a handful of GoTenna devices in strategic locations made it so that, for instance, instead of walking 40 minutes to the hospital to ask for medical aid, a person could walk 3 minutes to the church, where they could send a message to the hospital instantly.
So far the volunteer group has a bunch of devices around San Juan and is working with a few smaller communities to set up small networks like the one in Barranquitas. They’ve also set up endpoints at places where connectivity can be relied on — a working satellite connection that can send text messages (the Mesh can act as an SMS gateway, sending texts coming from locations where there’s no signal) or connect to web tool APIs like Twitter’s. Like Perdomo says, it’s not Netflix, but in the aftermath of a storm Netflix is pretty low on the list of priorities.
If you’d like to help out, feel free to donate to PR Reconnects or send over a spare solar charger or Mesh device if you have one.
Getting up and running
A very different approach to reestablishing communication, Google’s Loon project claims to have connected 100,000 people via balloon launched after the storms; but the balloons really act as a bridge between phones and distant, working cell networks. Lacking those (the backhaul Malavé mentioned), the system wouldn’t be able to do much — although in this case it looks like they were able to. But judging from the Google blog post, it looks like it was fantastically expensive to do and took weeks to get into action.
A Loon balloon being launched in Nevada ahead of going online over Puerto Rico.
A one-time setup cost, perhaps in the tens of thousands, for a mesh network (goTenna or not) could provide an entire city and much of the surrounding area with basic text communication, one of the most critical capabilities following a natural disaster.
But perhaps we won’t have to: considering the popularity of the goTenna Mesh and the tendency of its users to buy three or four and set one up as a relay, it might be that major cities will already be meshed up by motivated users before the next storm hits.
“When disasters like this are in the mainstream consciousness, it allows us to have interesting conversations about infrastructure,” said Perdomo. “These events feel extraordinary, but really, they happen every day — and we should be asking questions about the resilience of our infrastructure. A key part of that going forward is distributed systems, wind and solar and all that, but people aren’t having that conversation about communications. No particular network is the be-all, end-all, but I think the future of communications includes a peer to peer layer.”
And perhaps in the end, Perdomo suggested, goTenna will actually make itself obsolete:
“Today our phones don’t allow us to do what goTenna does, but we’re going to prove that they should be able to.”