LAS VEGAS--At CES, the start-up Peep Wireless Technology is trying to find partners to adopt its mobile phone mesh networking technology. It looks like the company has a long road ahead of it.
The mesh concept, which is not new, is that instead of phone voice or data moving as it does now, from low-powered mobile devices to high-powered, fixed towers, phones (and possibly other radio-equipped devices) would act as a miniature cell towers and repeaters on their own, handling data transmission for nearby devices. So if you're calling someone across the street, chances are you might be able to connect to their device directly, or maybe in just one or two "hops," using other people's devices as the towers and repeaters of your ad-hoc network.
Without cell towers, of course, there's no need for cellular carriers, no expensive private infrastructure to support, and no need for big recurring bills. A peer-to-peer mesh network is, in some cases, more robust than the traditional cellular infrastructure. It's certainly faster and cheaper to build. Mesh networks are in use today. Dust Networks, for example, provides technologies for sensors that are used in industrial and military applications for which there is no infrastructure. In a mesh network, the devices are the infrastructure.
On the other hand, building a mesh network of smartphones presents serious challenges that I don't think Peep has solved. The battery hit is a big one; many modern smartphones can barely make it through a day of use right now. Turning them into mini data repeaters would take even more power. And once a mesh network gets big, route-finding for data packets becomes a nontrivial computational task, and that introduces delay or lag into communications. Security, at least, should not be a big issue, since Peep's data is broken up and AES-encrypted end-to-end.
But the real challenge is getting the chiefs of the smartphone universe--the carriers--to play ball and invest in this technology. Peep President Scott Redmond is here at CES meeting with the carriers, he says.
I hope those meetings go better than his talk with me did.
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