The Happy Marriage of Mesh and Blockchain

We all know blockchain technology is going to change the world. Problem is, we just don’t really know how. And that’s been the major challenge for the team at Ammbr, along with the rest of the industry: finding a practical use case for blockchain technology that lives up to the speculation and hype — and actually works.

Until now, we’ve seen technologies and methodologies that deliver the same or better results in almost every use case where blockchain has been promoted as a panacea — with the notable exception of digital currency.

We wanted to take a serious blockchain solution to market — not just an elaborate laboratory experiment. We needed a use case that was compelling and better than anything delivered through other means.

So we had to solve two problems. One, find a use for blockchain that wasn’t contrived; and two, find an alternative to Proof of Work (PoW) that can stand up to an extreme security review.

Let’s just say that the early discussions amongst the team were intense. We discarded anything that looked vaguely like a “wannabe” or “copycat” idea. Dismissed ideas deemed far-fetched or impractical. In many cases, we found existing solutions did the job well enough, making them “long-tail” solutions rather than something ground-breaking.

Our Big Idea: to create a marketplace for telecommunications services that is open to anyone, and not controlled by the big players. There was promise in the wholesale interconnection market, but for us, the sweet spot lies in the last mile market — the bits that connect the end user to the backbone of the global internet. Right now, we use the internet through a combination of fixed line and mobile service providers — and depending on where you are in the world, this can be a good or a bad experience, or perhaps not even an option.

How are we going to do this? The answer lies in a fledgling technology called mesh networking — a network topology in which all nodes cooperate to distribute data in the network.

Mesh was originally created as a resilient network for the military, but today we find community mesh networks popping up around the world. There are industrial applications for mesh, including the connection of sensors and devices, and we’re seeing a boom in WIFI mesh products entering the market for users to distribute connectivity more evenly across homes and offices.

The challenge with mesh networking is that it typically doesn’t scale very well. When you have numerous nodes, all negotiating for routes and traffic, the overhead messages quickly outstrip the available bandwidth, causing congestion. The Ammbr team is nothing if not innovative, though. Turns out mesh can scale well if you offload traffic across multiple spectrum bands and multiple backhaul connections.

And so, the Ammbr Mesh Network was born.

A separate, but related, problem was the consensus mechanism we would use to create the underpinning economy of the Ammbr Mesh Network. Especially the early Bitcoin aficionados were adamant that the PoW approach was secure and tested, whereas the other flavours such as Proof of Stake (PoS) were untested, and probably had similar problems such as the tendency to centralise.

Centralisation is really a capitalism problem: too much power in fewer and fewer hands over time. Bitcoin favours ever more powerful ASIC miners, while Ethereum PoS favours those with more capital to commit to mining (although they have tried to strike a balance with a arguably low bar to entry). One can solve the centralisation problem in a number of ways. Draconian measures, like heavy taxation. Or you can just engineer it from the outset, which is the route we chose, creating a solution that actively resists centralisation.

PoW, on the other hand, uses an inordinate amount of electricity, which is why Bitcoin miners are driven to locations where power costs are low. Since most electricity production is derived from fossil fuels, PoW is eventually doomed to failure.

We ultimately want to extend the mining activities of the Ammbr network to low power devices such as mobile phones. Killing a phone’s limited battery power in no time will not win us any fans. Thanks to our chip designers, we’ve created a viable design for a mining ASIC that is cheap and easy.

Now the real work begins. We have to engineer highly automated distributed protocols and systems driven by the computing power at each Ammbr node. Security is the number one consideration, followed by performance. And if we’re going to make this solution a commercial success, usability is also of paramount importance.

Right now, we’re making tough design choices across different disciplines (and four continents). We’re engrossed in what may prove to be the highlight of all our careers. Hard work has never been such fun.

Technologist and dabbler in cosmology to aquaculture.