Years ago, not long after I got my first mobile phone, I was on the Tube in London. Since it was a boring journey, and since my phone was a New Shiny Thing, I started thinking about why it didn't work on the Underground.
I'm not totally fick. I know that, on one level, it's just plain because the signal from the cell tower can't reach the phone through all that mud, concrete and detritus.
So fair enough, the phone can't contact the outside world. Why can't I phone someone in the next carriage? I mean, both phones have transmitters and receivers that are more than up to the job. Technically it's possible. Why doesn't it work?
Then the cynic in me realised. If phones worked peer-to-peer like that, how would the phone companies bill for the minutes used? That's really the crux of the matter - without a centralised intermediary, there'd be nothing to charge for. If there was nothing to charge for, they wouldn't build the phones that could do it. And if they didn't, who else would?
I was a little annoyed and depressed when I realised all this on the tube. Here we were in this advanced civilisation, we have the technology to do useful things like this, and the reason we haven't got it is because someone can't see how to make money off it. The practical aspects of it all could be better than the current cell phone networks in many circumstances, and it could easily co-exist with it, but no-one did anything about it.
I didn't do anything about it either.
Hurricane Katrina and the after-effects in Louisiana have been making the headlines, and there's been a lot of talk about how badly communications technology fared during the crisis and aftermath. Cell phones didn't work, cell towers didn't work, WiFi didn't work, land lines didn't work, all because the city was flooded.
This prompted a message from Bob Frankston to a mailing list I'm on. I've never met him, but he's got a great handle on technology and isn't afraid of original thinking. I don't always agree with him, but I liked this:
Expensive dedicated radios are just as bad as 9/11 demonstrated.
As I keep pointing out we need are simple packet radios that automatically configure into a mesh and connect via whatever transport including satellite links. If they are packaged properly and can use various sources of power ranging from batteries to solar to "whatever" then they can be deployed from the air.
Using asymmetric radio approaches the power can be in larger base units a distance a way and using unbounded spread spectrum and redundancy some portions of the signal should be detectable despite obstacles.
The downside is that this may work too well compared with traditional cellular even under the best circumstances. Without the burden of billing it would be just like the rest of the Internet -- too good for people to accept the concept. And we can't risk that can we?
He's right! If phones worked that way, performance would get better in crowds instead of worse. More peers would mean better connectivity and more routing options. Being in a crowd now just increases your chances of getting a busy signal (or allegedly getting your call disconnected "accidentally" so the cell tower can route a pricier pay-as-you-go call).
Phones like this would be dramatically better in disaster areas like New Orleans. Better communications couldn't have brought in water or food, but they could really have saved lives in coordinating rescue efforts.
We don't have them now because companies can't see how to make money from the service aspect, but I don't see that being a problem in the long term. WiFi is popular enough at the minute that volunteer efforts are taking place to WiFi-enable sites, regions, communities, all at no cost to the user. Mesh networks are increasingly used - even my little WiFi router is mesh-capable now because the company had to release the firmware to the community (thank you GPL) and some independent developers added the mesh features for free.
Mesh networking will hit that inflection point, and sooner or later we'll have tiny devices that connect to the mesh and become part of it, and handle all our communications using whatever means are at the mesh's disposal.
But I can't wait. I want it now.