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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

P2P Cellular Networks for Citizen Disaster Response

by Ken Newquist / January 23, 2007

Over at Contrary Brin, science fiction author David Brin laments the collapse of our high tech cell phone network during the Katrina disaster and proposes a way to avoid subsequent cellular catastrophes: peer-to-peer networking.

His idea is so simple that you have to wonder why it isn't being done: when cell phones lose the ability to contact their local tower, switch to a back-up mode that allows them to find and talk with other phones. While voice would probably be too much for an ad hoc network, text messaging would work just fine. It's a great idea -- instead of having thousands of suddenly useless phones, you could have a functional, albeit low-powered citizen network.

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Correction: won't ever happen unless the government mandates it.

Why? Money.

It would be the foot in the door to make someone with a 'one laptop per child' attitude think about freeing us from the cellphone towers and the contracts to the conglomerates.

I don't want to sound conspiratorial, but think about the way the carriers lock down bluetooth data transfer, or do their best to keep wifi out of smartphones to lock you in to data plans, or fought number portability (still don't have it up here in Canada).

People dying vs. Money.

Money would still win, for some people.

Yet at the same time, the private response to Katrina was orders of magnitude more effective than the government response (on every level, from local to federal).

It may not need to be an ad hoc cellular network though. We're already seeing some P2P capabilities in handheld devices, like the Nintendo DS and Microsoft Zune, as well as phones that can switch from cellular networks to voice over IP via wifi. The DS does an excellent job of creating ad hoc wifi networks, and the Zune ... well, ok, it takes forever to transfer anything, but the tech is there.

Now take it a step further with a legion of wi-fi capable iPods or other, cheaper devices, and you at least have the beginnings of an infrastructure. Of course, the problem with all these alternatives is that they aren't cheap and the poorer residents of New Orleans probably couldn't have fallen back on their gadgets to communicate. That's where cell phones, even cheap handsets, would have a strong advantage.

Still, some network is better than no network, and I think that Brin's overall idea -- increasing the emergency skills and competency of the citizenry is a good one that is doable. Fix the government response if you can ... but don't count on it.

Don't get me wrong: I believe in the profit motive too!

I just think reciprocal altruism is a better profit than CEO's making in a day what the rest of us take a year to realize, and I don't see it changing at the carrier level any time soon.

Doctorow talks about cars trading music and ad hoc power in 'Eastern Standard Tribe' and I agree.

I put that together with the fact that the cellphone is the best weapon for defeating censorship in places like China or Guantanamo Bay, mix in the fact that bluetooth and 8 GB of storage makes for a pretty potent 'peer' in exactly the kind of casual P2P network you describe, and I see a pretty interesting future.

Imagine walking down the street and your next-gen RSS software grabs and sends different fragments of wikipedia, along with six of the twelve songs you have on your 'sniff list'.

Imagine taking the bus and drinking your coffee while the chunk of technology in your pocket uses spare cpu cycles to offer solicited bits and bits you've marked 'free viral' into other chunks of tech passing by.

Imagine when a the phone carried by a woman you never see at the back of the bus, on her way home from the airport after a trip to africa, sends you a 5 megapixel picture of a tribal dance and that out-of-print SF novel you've had on your sniff list for years.

Imagine when your communications device costs half as much, and has 8 TERABYTES of storage, and uses a wireless ad-hoc that runs at twice the speed of today's residential broadband. only fear is that net neutrality will look like a silly argument compared to the one the private nets will put up over the idea of a litterally people powered 'freenet'.

And I can't wait to see it. It's to first world society what clean water and the 'one laptop per child' COULD be to the third world.

Back to you, Ken! (grin)

I can't claim to be an expert on the technical and political challenges of a citizen built, ad hoc network -- there's all kinds of regulatory crap that governments and/or corrupt corporations can use to crush this sort of thing.

Yet as time marches on we're seeing a whole generation of technology coming into the realm of the hobbyist, and when I read Make magazine I can't help but wonder what sort of cool, maker/inventor inspired gadgets might arise over the next few years to challenge the status quo. Such as exactly the sort of gadgets you're describing. :)

I think such ad hoc free networks would end up being the back roads of the Internet, never replacing the primary internet (or even its private subnets) but augmenting and supporting them.

As far as clean water and free laptops in the Third World, they're noble endeavors and obviously they will help to some degree, but ultimately I think what's needed is a push for more stable, transparent and deregulated governments. That's not as sexy a topic a free computing or as simple a rallying cry as debt forgiveness, but we seen time and time again that stable, open societies based on the rule of law make a radical different in people's quality of living. Hell, just look at the difference between North and South Korea!

I like how you brought this thread around with ANOTHER big idea. One look at New Orleans tells me you're right, as if I hadn't been fomenting that kind of treason before (grin).

I'm not thinking about the free wifi networks that sprung up to help rebuild infrastructure, but those help alot too. No, I'm talking about how the private and volunteer group responses were so much better than all the governmental.

Not because governments couldn't respond, but because as you said in your 'two koreas' comment, a government can be very different when the underlying assumptions change, even if the population and resource base is largely the same.

There could be an argument made that how federal and state governments Chose to respond was very chaotic and included more 'cover my ass' sentimentality than 'first response, damn the regulations' intentions.

And in the aftermath law officers charged a few people for stealing abandoned vehicles to help with the rescue efforts. I call that a fundamental disconnect.

We need more peer to peer in the government, as well as the broadcast spectrum.