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This new iOS 7 feature could change how we connect to the Internet

Updated Mar 24th, 2014 4:51PM EDT
iOS 7 Mesh Network Feature

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Last week, we told you about a new messaging app from Open Garden called FireChat whose key feature is that it doesn’t need an Internet connection to work. It creates a mesh network between users and the Internet with a new protocol in iOS 7 called Multipeer Connectivity Framework. As Cult of Mac points out, as this technology becomes more mainstream it could have profound effects on how people across the world connect to the Internet.

Multipeer connectivity works the same way as AirDrop, which was also new in iOS 7. It uses Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to send data and files from one device to another without having either device connected to the Internet. With multipeer connectivity, if one of these devices is connected to the Internet, it can share its Internet connection with any device that is nearby and that also has multipeer connectivity. This device can then in turn share its connection with more nearby devices.

Multipeer connectivity could then be used to provide an Internet connection to large crowds where cellular connections are weak. As an example, Cult of Mac describes volunteers along a marathon trail with no cellular connection. As long as each of the volunteers is within range of each other, they could all share an Internet connection if the volunteers at the end of the trail have an Internet connection.

Multipeer connectivity could be extremely important for first responders after natural disasters when cell towers are knocked offline. They could use a mesh network to communicate with each other in the absence of a cell tower, or if one person can connect to the Internet then that person could theoretically connect everyone else around them within a certain radius. It could also be used to expand wireless access to poor areas where an entire town might be able to connect to the Internet via a mesh network.

Multipeer connectivity does have its limitations, though. Perhaps most importantly, everyone in the network must be within range of each other. Apple doesn’t say how far apart users can be, but Open Garden says FireChat users must be within 30 feet of each other. It is also unclear how much mesh networks affect battery life and how much bandwidth they can carry, although these two limitations will certainly improve over time.

Multipeer connectivity also does not sit well with the carriers. Although mesh networks could reduce the network load on their cell towers, some also view it as unauthorized tethering. For example, AT&T has blocked Open Garden’s mesh networking Android app from the Google Play store.

Nonetheless, mesh networking has a bright future as more and more devices will be able to take advantage of it. Apple is clearly committed to it with its Multipeer Connectivity Framework, and Google’s senior VP Sundar Pichai mentioned mesh networks twice at SXSW when talking about wearable computing. Mesh networking could connect not just phones and laptops to the Internet and to each other, but also all of the smart watches and smart devices that are rumored to be just around the corner.

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