A wireless mesh is a collection of small devices communicating using radio waves. A mesh has no central servers and each device on the mesh shares responsibility for getting information to other devices. The devices in a mesh typically have a very short operating range, and are sharply limited in the frequencies they can use.
The Internet, on the other hand, is very hierarchical, and highly structured communication system that uses large computers and expensive fixed wires and fiber-optic cables to transmit information.
Governments and government friendly corporations currently exercise effective control over the available radio frequency spectrum. They allocate frequencies to radio, television, police, fire, etc. Typically, governments allocate a very small part of the spectrum for use by the public.
The mesh, the Internet, and the radio frequency spectrum are three significant aspects of communicating in the modern world.
It seems likely that the mesh will grow, and governments and large corporations will lose control over larger and larger parts of the radio frequency spectrum. How fast this happens will depend on how much control governments try to exert over the present communications system. The more draconian the government, the faster the mesh will proliferate.
Currently the mesh is in its infancy. There are local wireless networks in a lot of places, but they mostly rely on the Internet for connectivity to the wider world. Eventually, though, it may be possible to connect to any where in the world without using any system controlled by a government or large corporation. Already we have a proliferation of phones, laptops, PDA's, thermometers, cameras, vending machines and other devices nibbling away at the available spectrum. These mostly use bandwidth allocated by the government. The mesh brings a lot of potential for spectrum “piracy”. The government has been successful in controlling spectrum in the past because the price of setting up even a small broadcasting station is large. That is changing. The price of transmitters is falling, and their stealth capabilities are improving. Spread spectrum allows devices to share bandwidth more efficiently, but it also makes illegal transmissions much more difficult to detect and control.
Beginning with coinage, the state has had a great deal of control of mass produced information. The Romans mass produced government controlled coins, which also allowed them to invent inflation. After a couple of hundred years, coins that had been pure silver and gold had only single digit percentages of precious metals. Then the empire collapsed. Then came the printing press, radio, and television, which yielded similar results. Governments and government friendly corporations took more and more control of the new media and the media became less useful to the general population.
With the mesh, there will be no such thing as an Internet service provider. You won't have to go through AOL or EarthLink, or you local phone or Cable Company to get on the mesh. You still won't be able to communicate across oceans without going through undersea cables or satellites. Right now the local wireless networks are limited to single communities, but as these islands of free connectivity link up. the mesh will probably span continents.
Now we have the Internet, cell phones, personal video cameras, and PDAs, and we will soon have the mesh. These are person-to-person communications systems are progressively more difficult for the government and its friends to control. This is a fundamental change in the basics of the communications network that makes up our society. We could be reverting to a much earlier form, when word of mouth was the only means of communication, but with the difference that point-to-point conversations can be carried on at a minimal cost over very long distances.
This tectonic change in the very structure of our society will have vast implications that we are only beginning to see. I think it will mean an erosion of state power and the rise in importance of families and tribes. But that may be wishful thinking. I have a lot more sympathy for families and tribes than governments.