Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Off-the-Grid Internet Scenarios

A while back, I mentioned the possibility of a future where we might have internet off the grid. Based on comments I've received and ongoing search statistics, this seems to be a popular topic these days, so maybe it's time to elaborate further.

First, let me make extremely clear - while mostly knowledgeable in most of the areas I delve into here, I am far from expert. I would, however, love to get a dialogue going on the subject, as I believe it's a useful converation to have. At the very least, there are enough different implications here for multiple science fiction stories. There may be some business opportunities too.

Scenario - Commercial power available but in limited quantities
If society has access to some but somewhat limited amounts of commercial power, then obviously there would have to be some kind of prioritization or auctioning to decide who has access to that power. Think television/radio spectrum frequency distribution. Under such a set of circumstances, I can imagine that at least some server farms might have access to at least some commercial power but it might not be 24x7. Average businesses and individuals would likely not have access to commercial power - if they did, we wouldn't need this conversation.

If this scenario were to come about, then much of the internet might look from the outside like it does today, except that businesses and individuals would need individual power supplies such as from solar, wind, or geothermal sources in order to connect to it. You'd have access to the internet pretty much as you're used to now, just not all the time like we have today.

Since others would be in similar circumstances, you might be able to access static data (such as website pages) right away but something like an email response to a question (especially involving other individuals and smaller businesses) would be somewhat delayed. Solar-powered wi-fi routers mentioned in my previous post would be an important element in keeping such a system working.

Scenario - Little or no commercial power available
In a more post-apocalyptic scenario, there might not even be enough commercially-available power to run server farms but that doesn't mean the internet has to go away altogether. We've gotten used to the near-instantaneous nature of data transmission across the internet but those of us who remember the days of Store and Forward know that data can still move even when it gets held up for a while.

In my imagination, it would look a lot like the ham radio National Traffic System which uses local traffic nets to help move information. Ad hoc peer-to-peer connections would come up and down according to each individual's access to power and like a bucket brigade, or BitTorrent sharing, we'd pass along each other's traffic while accessing what we want for ourselves the same way.

Quite possibly, the data requests we make ultimately will be delivered to servers that aren't themselves up 24x7. The result would be request, delay, fulfillment - or, a lot like how cross-oceanic calls used to be placed where the request would be made of an operator who would make the connection while you're off-line and then ring you back when it was available. If that's too challenging for modern minds to fathom, think instead of holding for a call from the President.

In such a situation where data must regularly travel multiple intermittently-available routes, it may be that some additional protocols must be developed to optimize transmission but it's surely possible, even if it means falling back to simpler data types. Error correction would be the biggest problem. If a packet gets dropped along the way, it could take days to put it all back together again, depending on the severity of power accessibility. We're definitely talking about a different sort of animal than what we've become used to.

The solar-powered wi-fi routers would be a virtual necessity to make such a system very workable and almost certainly some social engineering would be required too along the lines of scheduling uptime so that data requests could be made and forwarded in a "timely" fashion.

Each scenario would have its own impact on what everyday life might look like but some commonalities exist. With a shortage of fuel, it's likely we'd be living in smaller communities oriented around food production. But instead of the near-isolation of frontier towns or the relative lack of communication between older European villages, we could still communicate and share with one another digitally.

If there is enough commercially-available power, we may even be able to continue with much of what we've come to expect is normal in terms of information-age business and commerce except that working in remote virtualized groups would be more common than larger groups housed together in cities.

Of course, if cities get better about their own food production, that would be another game-changer and there are some interesting possibilities around that as well. For that one, you'd have to talk to my brother-in-law - he's got some great ideas. If it's something that interests you, let me know and I'll put you in touch.

How do you see the future?