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The Future of the Internet is Unfolding in Africa

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With "net neutrality" laws looming in our near future, internet killswitch legislation brewing in California, and the ever-present monthly bills for Internet Service Providers, it may seem that the best days of the internet are behind us. Like the Wild West giving way to the Bureau of Land Management, it might appear that the exciting freshness of the Internet wearing off.

However, hope for a faster, tougher, freer internet is cropping up in places that most people don't immediately associate with the cutting edge of technology: Africa. But it's for a good reason. While most people in the West are perfectly capable of paying $40-$60 monthly for internet access, this is an absolute killer in Africa. So a new technology, the wireless mesh network, is gaining popularity. Rather than a set of users depending on a central server system and ISP, the user's wireless devices themselves make up the network. Traffic is peer to peer to peer, rather than peer to server to peer. This means two wonderful things; there's no one to pay, and there's nothing to build.

Internet access in the developed world operates on the model of telephone service dating back to the early 20th century. This was a natural, given the first internet technology we all loved to hate: dial-up. This top down, centralized model of data distribution has gradually improved connection speeds, but the structure of server farms and zillions of miles of cable never changed.

In glorious contrast, the mesh networks in Africa are decentralized, and as is the case with mesh networks, the more nodes (phones/computers) that are added, the faster the network gets.

Speed advantages aside, mesh networks allow for not just one internet, but many internets, operating simultaneously and independently of one another. With mesh networks, there is no longer just one internet that can be killed with the touch of a button (look how Turkey shut down Twitter in their country because people were saying things the government didn't like). A decentralized internet is a robust internet.

Ultimately, a smartphone user operating inside a mesh network could call anywhere and download as much of anything as he or she wanted free of charge. No phone bill. No ISP. And this is exactly what we are seeing grow up in Africa. Soon, apps will develop that will mesh directly from phone to phone in the US, and like Blockbuster, the ISP will disappear before they can react.

Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.