What is Proximal Networking and why should I care?

Proximal Networking

The Problem

Seems like there’s a new networking idea in town, and it’s got some very interesting properties. When thinking of wireless networking, today we all communicate via access point nodes either on Wifi Access points or through Cell towers. Our cell phones connect to a centralized network of towers and our computing devices at home connect to our wifi-enabled router. This is fine for residential or closed commercial networks, but this centralized model suffers under the increased load of events or other large public gatherings. It can thus be extrapolated that the public wireless network can, and likely will, be inoperable in places with too many people (this is because of Shannon’s Law which relates to information theory, specifically signal to noise ratios and congestion).

A Definition

Proximal networking is decentralized, location-sensitive networking. Part of the beauty of Proximal networking is removing the middleman, in this case the cellular network.

If we’re standing next to each other in San Francisco, our phones don’t directly connect. Instead, both of our calls are routed to the nearest cell tower, through a backend switch and back out the same cell tower to our phones. Why? Why don’t we use something like Bluetooth to simply directly connect the two devices? This is the gist of Proximal networking.

Another avenue for Proximal networking is the distribution of public safety alerts or marketing information. We have geo-fencing; the so-called GPS triggers, but they’re currently woefully inaccurate and aren’t easy to integrate with carriers. As I said, the beauty of Proximal networking is that it eliminates middlemen.

I believe generation two (if gen 1 actually ships) will leverage multiple users as carriers; ergo crossing a city for a phone call will be borne by multiple users instead of multiple towers. Think of it as leapfrogging to the other side of the city using people carrying cellphones as the bridging element. Since cellphones are communicating in a more direct fashion, this frees up the cell towers to provide more service, thus assisting with the aforementioned congestion issues.

Some Hurdles

Discovery and Privacy

How do I identify who has a Proximal networking enabled device? How do I control and restrict who has access to my proximal device? I don’t just want anybody to be able to connect to my device just because they happen to be near me. The privacy controls and discoverability patterns will require much evaluation and experimentation.

Data Segregation

If I am carrying data for my peers, I should not be able to access their data and their data should not interfere with the use of my device. This compartmentalization is difficult, essentially you’re creating a VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network) on the device and ensuring that the user space and the carrier space don’t conflict. If, for example, others in your area leveraging your proximity could degrade your communications experience, that might be something highly undesirable to say the least. Making sure the user (control) channel and the carrier (data) channel don’t conflict is of paramount importance.

Control

Frankly, I don’t know if carriers will give up control. The truth is that if every cellphone is a cell tower (sort of the point of proximal networking) you should be paying your peers for carrying your calls, not the carrier, since they don’t provide much value here (when you leverage proximal networking, you are not leveraging a carriers network beyond directory services, if that). For this reason I am pessimistic about a quick rollout of this technology. That being said, a directory at carrier scale is the only way a citywide proximal networking system could work.

Where is Kansas?

To paraphrase what Dorothy said to Toto, “I don’t think we’re in carrier land anymore”. Proximal networking, as a decentralized method of communication, is an existential threat to carriers. Proximal networking, as a method of delivering content (like Public Safety Alerts or Advertising) is likely how this technology will surface, but the former case is the more interesting of the two.

I’m incredibly excited that such a technology is being developed but bearish about the commercial opportunities. I think carriers have to be very careful when rolling out this tech, but it could be a great new avenue for communications.

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