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IBM uses mesh networking to bring weather alerts to developing countries

Steve Rogerson
February 22, 2017



IBM through its subsidiary The Weather Company is using mesh networking to notify underserved populations in developing countries of potential severe weather events or disasters, even in areas with limited internet connection or where cellular networks are disrupted due to an outage.
 
The mesh technology will be available via The Weather Channel app in emerging markets. The app will use peer-to-peer connections within the mesh network to send alerts to individuals via their smartphone devices. The technology links other nearby phones to extend the signal to help keep citizens connected and informed in the most severe conditions.
 
Mesh network alerts technology is particularly crucial in emerging markets, as well as in developed countries where cellular networks are congested, connectivity is intermittent and data access is often limited. As a result, the ability to alert and inform people during emergency situations is unreliable, which can have dire consequences.
 
"The combination of the innovative mesh network alerts and global reach of The Weather Channel mobile app can help deliver a new level of emergency awareness to underserved populations," said Bijan Davari, IBM vice president. "We're proud to be able to quickly offer a critical and potentially lifesaving capability to hundreds of millions of people around the world."
 
The mesh network alerts will be available first as an update coming soon to The Weather Channel app for Android devices in emerging markets across Asia, Latin America and Africa. This app, available in the Google Play Store, was researched, designed and recently launched specifically for emerging markets. It's optimised for low bandwidth environments, but offers the same user experience and needed weather information, maps and alerts from The Weather Channel.
 
"IBM once again shows its leadership in edge computing capabilities, and this next important milestone will help bring the value of edge compute to life," said Cameron Clayton, CEO of The Weather Company. “Mesh network alerts extend the ability to receive a potentially lifesaving alert to a global audience, even with limited connectivity. With IBM collaboration, investment and research, we can now reach users in previously underserved areas and better deliver the information they need."
 
Peer-to-peer networking has potential for communities and across industries. As part of The Weather Channel app, it can help notify a mother in India before forecasted thunderstorms approach where her children play, or it can inform a small business owner in Peru of incoming heavy rainfall before preparing inventory. The team behind the app is working with national meteorological services around the world to help broadcast government-issued severe weather alerts even if a country's existing infrastructure has been affected.
 
Usually, a government-issued message is broadcast via a cell tower to all devices within its range. When that network goes down, however, so does the ability to send alerts. Peer-to-peer technology converts mobile devices into links within the mesh network, allowing devices to talk directly to each other without using cell tower infrastructure. Each smartphone becomes a node that stores the message and passes it to the next nearest device, creating a daisy chain to reach more devices and remove the need for a cellular network. While other mesh networks use hotspotting, IBM chose not to turn devices into individual access points to avoid excessive battery drain.
 
Mesh network alerts work entirely within the app, using devices connected to Bluetooth or wifi to communicate with other smartphones nearby that are not connected via data or to a cell network. It works off the grid in remote areas, large crowds or disaster zones, but scale is crucial. Mobile or internet signals slow down or stop when more users overload the network, but mesh networks actually improve with more people. At these times, a larger amount of smartphones helps the mesh network move a message along.  Peer-to-peer technology is more effective with large numbers.
 
Data are precious to users in emerging markets, and a large app can be prohibitively expensive to download. To help users make decisions and stay safe through all types of weather, this app provides weather data, forecasts and notifications, but at a significantly reduced size.
 
To understand customers in emerging markets, the team met with local users for research. Top concerns that surfaced globally include app performance on lower-end smartphones, unreliable or low-speed connections, and expensive data plans. To help solve these problems, The Weather Channel has created an app that uses less data, downloads easily and loads quickly.
 
At 3.2Mbyte, the app can store weather data offline for up to 24 hours and offers user-selected options of whether to update on wifi, cellular or on request. These changes result in high performance on 2G and 3G connections, launching in seconds on 2G. With reduced file size and bandwidth usage, many of the innovations piloted in this app are planned to make their way into The Weather Channel app for Android flagship later this year as well.
 
Since purchasing The Weather Company in 2016, IBM has invested and made the weather.com site available in 62 languages, to 178 countries and across 4G, 3G and 2G. The Weather Channel also launched global weather forecast notifications on mobile web to provide severe weather information in areas around the world with limited access to real-time notifications.
 
The weather platform provides information in almost every country and for 2.2 billion locations worldwide. By combining its scale, accuracy in weather and location data, and unique alerting capabilities, it can help consumers protect themselves.