In the most recent season of Silicon Valley, the protagonist Richard Hendriks abandons the video chat business he started with his friends to pursue his own dream of creating a new internet. Although Hendriks's peers initially look at him askance for doggedly pursuing such a crazy idea, the dream of decentralizing the internet is alive and well IRL.
In the latest example of life imitating art, the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation has partnered with the National Science Foundation to offer a total of $2 million in rewards for ideas that will make a decentralized internet a reality. The hope is to bring reliable internet connections to those who need it most—rural communities and disaster victims.
Although most of us probably take our constant connectivity for granted, the majority of the world—some 4 billion people—don't have access to a reliable internet connection. Even in the rural US, connectivity remains a serious problem in 2017 and when internet access is available, it is often slow and unreliable.
Then there's the problem of maintaining internet connectivity in the aftermath of a natural disaster that wipes out local infrastructure, like in the aftermath of the avalanche that killed several climbers on Everest in 2015. In these cases, internet access can be critical to coordinating rescue efforts and allowing survivors to get in contact with their families to let them know they're okay.
Fortunately, solutions are beginning to emerge. There is a growing community of Redditors dedicated to creating a decentralized meshnet, or peer-to-peer networking protocol, in an effort to challenge the total control that Internet Service Providers have over our access to the web. Other networking researchers are developing decentralized internet solutions for more exotic use cases, such as tracking zebras in the wild or bringing the internet to Mars, although these efforts may also prove to be incredibly useful a little closer to home.
If anyone can help usher in the era of decentralized networking, it'd likely be the Mozilla Foundation, which works to make the internet easily accessible through open-source browsing software, and the NSF, the original steward of the World Wide Web. To get the ball rolling, the Mozilla blog highlights ideas such as turning backpacks into roaming routers or repurposing old phone booths or other under-utilized infrastructure as WiFi hotspots or repeaters.
But with $2 million dollars on the line, the ideas are only likely to get better.