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The Connectivity Problem

December 7, 2012

One of the problems I have been privy to over the course of my time in C4G has been one of connectivity. My project team (working on C4G BLIS, a laboratory management system for medical testing laboratories, currently limited to African countries) has often had to take into consideration the fact that there often is not reliable internet in the parts of the world that we’re trying to help. Many of the systems that developers take for granted, online backups, update systems, and rapid communication, are simply not an option for these establishments.

Online backups are replaced with an administrator with a thumb drive. An update download is replaced by the same. And rapid communication is just not a reliable concept. These systems that make development in more technologically advanced nations so reliable become limitations that seem to bind our hands and frustrate us when developing new features. Having been involved with a web-based start-up a year prior, these problems have been very jarring for me, and have placed in plain view a problem that I previously only acknowledged in the back of my mind.

The problem of connectivity extends well beyond a mere inconvenience to philanthropic developers, however. As demonstrated by the Arab Spring, the internet can be a powerful tool for change, and the suppression of internet connectivity can be a powerful tool for oppression. This problem, as well as the previously mentioned internet availability problem, raise the question of what options are available to solve these issues.

One of the more popular solutions, at this time, is the notion of a mesh-net. This concept was covered in the C4G lectures and, in a nutshell, the idea is that instead of each computer accessing the internet via an ISP, or some other centralized infrastructure or authority, each computer connects only to those computers closest to it. With each computer behaving the same way, and acting as a router for every other computer, a ‘mesh’ of computers will be able to allow each other computer to connect to the internet as a whole. Several questions of efficiency and reliability are raised by this system, but the general idea is that such a system would be 1) Faster to implement 2) Cheaper to implement and 3) Very difficult to shut down.

Such a system is, of course, not without flaws, and is untenable in areas that already enjoy established infrastructure and a certain expectation of speed. A mesh-net system can only practically be built on wireless communication, and such communication is slow and unreliable. A computer moving 10 feet in one direction may isolate another computer completely, or break a connection that was serving to join large groups of otherwise connected computers.

However, in developing nations, where establishing infrastructure is not an option, and speed is a secondary concern, a mesh-net system could bring internet to parts of the world that have never enjoyed it, and could drastically improve the quality of life in those areas.

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