Skywave [GiTO]

The name “Skywave Mesh” sounds outrageously florid, almost Bond-worthy, a name a science fiction writer would give their fictional technology to make it sound all badass (while wholly failing to do so). In this case, it isn’t badassitude at all, but rather the name of the two different technologies that were smashed together to make the Internet of 2039.

But first, let’s talk about acoustic couplers.

The first modems were ridiculously low-tech, low-fidelity devices. They operated by means of an acoustic coupler, two circles of rubber, shaped like cups, attached to a plastic device. You clipped the handset of a bog-standard AT&T-issued home telephone into the device, the speaker in one cup, the mic in the other. The computer made noises in one cup, and listened for sounds in the other. By means of this baroque (nearly steampunk, almost Rube Goldbergian) device, computers could “talk” to each other over the phone lines.


They took an existing technology and repurposed it, allowing it to do things the designers never intended. (The quintessential characteristic of humans.) And in so doing, allowed everyday computers to communicate without expensive, dedicated infrastructure or specialized equipment emplacements.

Let’s talk shortwave radio. Shortwave radio has an odd characteristic called “skywave propagation”: radio signals sent out from one station (which can be as small as a breadbox, or smaller) can bounce off the ionosphere and reflect back to Earth. These signals can be received across the continent, on the other side of the ocean, and even on the other side of the planet.

Literally, on the other side of the Goddamn planet.

Using a shortwave radio, you can talk to anyone, anywhere on the planet. (Intermittently. Depending on time of day, the season of the year, solar flare activity, available channels, and so forth.) Without satellites or transcontinental cables, shortwave is the easiest way of establishing worldwide communication.

So what? What good is shortwave radio to computer communications? Can it even be used for that?

Sure. *Acoustic coupler*, bitches.

Not the same piece of equipment, obviously, but the same general principle: transmit and receive sound over a communication channel. Encode digital data in sound, send it, receive sound, decode it. This is a common piece of equipment, called a modem, which was the successor to the acoustic coupler.

In extremis, you could literally stick a microphone in front of the speaker of the radio, and receive information that way. (Reverse it to send.) Of course, this isn’t very effective.

The smarter, and easier way, takes precisely two cables: radio speaker out to computer sound in, computer sound out to radio mic jack. Two cables, and a piece of software to do the encoding and decoding, and all of a sudden you can talk to computers on the other side of the planet.

Simple. Ingenious. Effective.

You can send data. Receive data. And have your own little network.

Slowly — real time video streaming is O-U-T. (As are graphics heavy websites. You’ll take your painfully slow Unicode text transmission, and thank God for the privilege.) Intermittently — as affected by the health of the skywave bounce. And unreliably. (This is the Outlaw.) But it can be done.

A communications channel is just one part of setting up a replacement Internet. The other part was done via an existing technology called Mesh networking.

Skywave propagation + Mesh networking = a new Internet. And a name a Bond villain might have employed: the Skywave Mesh.

(“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”)

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