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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Is this a clever idea?

22 July 2014

For quite some time I've been suggesting that the creation of ad-hoc mesh networks of WiFi-enabled mobile phones would be a great way to sidestep the mobile networks.

Why would you want to sidestep these networks?

Well in the case of natural disaster or network failure, such a mesh networking would allow traffic such as SMS-style messages to slowly propagate their way around until hopefully they reached the intended recipient. This would be a great backup for emergency scenarios.

In other cases, it would provide added security for personal messaging by bypassing the mobile carriers which, as we all know, are required to hand over the contents of your messages or calls "on demand" -- or perhaps even on a routine basis (do we really know for sure?).

However, there are some significant problems associated with becoming part of such a network.

The first and probably most significant issue is that of battery life.

Many modern smartphones are already power-poor and suffer from short operating times due to the drain of WiFi, large backlit LCDs and uber-powerful multi-core processors. To burden these devices with acting as a mesh-node could reduce that battery life to just a few hours in many cases.

A mesh network that collapses due to a lack of battery power after such a short time is obviously less than practical -- but there may be a solution.

I read this story from the Telegraph website in the UK and thought... "ah, that's a good idea".

It's not totally clear what the goTenna is, perhaps it's just a point-to-point RF link, perhaps it's a mesh network -- I don't know. However, if it's the latter then, being self-contained and self-powered, it would be a brilliant way to create such ad-hoc communications links without burdening your mobile battery to oblivion.

Because it doesn't have to run all the other crap that normally chews power in a smartphone, the goTenna's battery should last much longer than your cellphone would if it were serving as a network node. And, because it only communicates with your mobile when there's a packet with your name on it, the cellphone's standby and operating time should remain unaffected.

How clever is that?

The only worrying thing about the system "as advertised" is the "emergency mode" which allows you to broadcast a message to all other goTenna modes within range. I can imagine messages such as "EMERGENCY: you need more Viagra, visit this website for information..." appearing very regularly via that function :-(

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that this device will take off -- mainly due to inertia and what appears to be a closed standard for the protocols being used. If these folk had some smarts... they'd publish and promote the protocols so that the hacker community could embrace it and then, the essential "critical mass" of devices out there might actually be attained.

What goTenna risks right now is that someone *will* do an open-source equivalent and they'll have created a market they'll never own -- or even profit from.

How many crowdfunding products will now suddenly appear out of the woodwork promising the same functionality at a lower cost and with open protocols?

I wonder if any Aardvark readers would spend money on such a device and if so, how much would you spend? Would it have to be "open"?

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