ISP in a Box: Althea Reimagines Mesh Network Systems
It all starts with firmware that runs a routing protocol, allowing routers to pay each other for bandwidth and automate network configuration.
Mesh networks are becoming more popular to help people access Wi-Fi in their homes. Each node in the infrastructure cooperates with others to provide seamless connectivity without connection dropouts.
What if we were to apply the mesh network approach to decentralized internet service providers (ISPs)? A company called Althea proposes such a system.
Althea allows members of a community to take an active role in improving internet access for themselves and their neighbors. Instead of people paying centralized ISPs for access to routers and networking hardware each month, subscribers use cryptocurrency to pay the community members who own the routers they use within the mesh network.
Althea creates a decentralized ISP, relying on mesh networks. Image used courtesy of Althea
The price varies depending on the speeds desired. If someone's payment source runs out, they can still access the internet via baseline speeds.
Althea reports that since COVID-19, they've seen a spike in demand for new Althea networks. But how exactly does this decentralized ISP system work?
An Overview of the Network Functionality
Althea's system begins with firmware installed on network routers. The firmware runs a routing protocol that automates the network configuration and enables the routers to pay each other for bandwidth. Every Althea router accesses the internet through a backhaul—a commercial-grade internet subscription.
To get an idea of how this setup works in real life, consider the workings of the first community network, located in Oregon. In an article on how Althea is bringing internet to rural communities, the author explains that everything starts with the network's organizer getting a commercial fiber internet subscription sold by a nearby provider.
The service is then transmitted with 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz antennas. Relay nodes receive the signal and send it to households that are Althea subscribers.
One of Althea's antennas attached to an internet host's home above the treeline. Image used courtesy of Althea
Each router automatically sends cryptocurrency back and forth, based on the amount of bandwidth used. Community members can also get paid by housing antennas on their roofs, expanding the network.
Potential Effects on EEs in the Telecom Sector
It's too early to say whether this innovative use of mesh networks might become more popular (especially in rural communities) and ultimately impact the technology electrical engineers are tasked with designing.
Justin Kilpatrick, Althea's chief commercial officer and co-founder, explains, "From an electrical engineering perspective, this is all about the change from cheap, low-power million instructions per second (MIPS) processors to equally cheap but much more capable advanced RISC machine (Arm) processors in consumer edge routers. Driven by the dramatic increase in demand for smartphones, the price of higher performance chips has plummeted."
Network equipment bringing connectivity to a rural area. Image used courtesy of Althea
The company utilizes a creative and flexible approach to its hardware: "We buy and reflash normal consumer customer premises equipment (CPE) [routers] in bulk to turn them into Althea boxes," Kilpatrick noted.
The demand for mesh network designs in electrical engineering may increase if more projects like Althea cater to people in rural areas or those who otherwise find that dominant ISPs do not meet their needs. The decentralized nature of the network gives people more control over how they access the internet, and the amounts paid.
Notes on the Nodes
The Althea network consists of several nodes. The company's white paper gives a detailed hardware breakdown worth your perusal. Here's a rundown:
A person who wants internet access via Althea buys these. The nodes are similar to the routers and modems traditional ISPs use. User nodes provide Wi-Fi hotspots or wired local area network (LAN) ports to bridge traffic from non-Althea devices into the system.
The people who want to earn an income by forwarding internet traffic install these. Relay nodes must have a good line of sight to other nodes.
These nodes connect Althea's physical layer to the internet. They're a kind of relay node with a link to inexpensive bandwidth, such as an internet exchange or a business-grade connection offered by a standard ISP.
Whereas user, relay, and gateway nodes exist on the physical Althea network, exit nodes may not. A data center with connections to the internet could house them instead. They connect to gateway nodes through VPN tunnels. They also assume some roles handled by traditional ISPs, like dealing with copyright infringement allegations or network address translations.
Diagram of how the nodes work together in the mesh network ecosystem. Image used courtesy of Althea
Althea subscribers can access a node list through a software interface. It shows each node's nickname and blockchain address. People can also get more details, including a node's IP address and specific notes made about it.
New Methods of ISP Billing and Traffic Load Balancing
Kilpatrick envisions a future where the hardware a person uses to connect to the internet is "an intelligent router and traffic shaper." Althea could also emerge as a useful alternative to traditional ISPs should it gain traction.
Althea uses a per-byte billing method, providing reliable internet at reasonable costs. According to Kilpatrick, it can "aggressively shape connections to provide a better user experience without worrying about cheating the user out of what they paid for."
Each node monitors the data forwarded and the amount of cryptocurrency received. Exit nodes authenticate traffic from user nodes. Plus, they form tunnels between each neighboring node. They can permit, block, or shape traffic passing through each tunnel, depending on payment.
Packet flow diagram of Althea's networking operations. Image used courtesy of Althea
Althea addresses slow-loading webpages, too. Kilpatrick clarifies, "There's more than enough speed to load everyone's webpages quickly and keep voice and video calls smooth if only the traffic could be intelligently allocated. This is what we do with Althea routers."
He continues, "We take it to the extreme by chaining them hop-to-hop in the field and letting the traffic shaping and routing tools manage automated load balancing themselves."
A Word on Cryptocurrency
Althea could change how people access the internet, allowing them to have more control over speed and costs and eliminate lengthy contracts. Since cryptocurrency isn't widely adopted, users may need to educate themselves on this payment method before adopting Althea.
Do you work in the telecom sector? How has your industry been affected by COVID-19? Share your experiences in the comments below.