Mesh Incentivization talk from MIT Bitcoin Expo 2019

I gave a talk at the MIT Bitcoin Expo about the work we’re doing on incentivizing mobile mesh networks. The response from people at the expo was positive and I’d also love to know what people from the mesh community here think.

Incentivizing Mobile Mesh Networks (YouTube)

If you have any questions about the talk, feel free to post them here too.


It was an enlightening and informative talk. I have to say I start off as a bit-currency skeptic for a lot of reasons, most of which are extraneous to this discussion. What’s important here is that I can now see a practical use in the goTenna Mesh context.

Of course, starting as someone who sees the value in the device for many reasons, my skepticism is rooted in the notion that people do good things, like putting up mesh networks that mostly benefit others, for a variety of social and altruistic reasons. I’m not sure how to incentivize that, especially in ways that don’t undermine the moral suasion that results in these things coming into being.

What’s convinced me that bit-currency has some value here is the argument that it’s mainly about getting people to leave their goTennas on in order to encourage availability as relays. This is surprisingly hard to do, even though the energy consumed by keeping it on is tiny and requires simply remembering to plug it in.

Even in the household, my significant other’s device is rarely turned on unless there’s something specific expected requiring its use. In comparison, mine is almost always on and the backup in the truck is on 24/7 due to a much bigger battery being available. :grin: But I’m an old radio guy who knows people can’t reach me if the radio’s not on.

What it’s hoped that TxTenna does is to encourage users to keep their personal GTMs on in order to reap the potential income that it may generate. Weirdly enough, this combination of a screen, a keyboard, some social media touches, and some trickling in of “funds” that can be used for other services may work, where a little more knowledge and persistent encouragement doesn’t.

Also, for the folks who are always asking about goTenna and open source… Richard has some interesting comments about how the various SDKs and a mysterious “Lot 49” will support open source solutions in mesh networking. I won’t spoil any of that with specifics, but the video is well worth listening to to hear them in context.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mike!

I totally understand why many mesh fans might think that adding incentives is strange. Even without an incentive system people do run relays altruistically. Realistically though most people tend to need a little nudge. Even if the incentive value is small, it is still a way to reinforce the idea that you are helping the network when you operate your relay.

If you think about how much effort people put in to earn ‘likes’ on social media then it’s clear that incentives can be be social as well as financial. But unlike platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we want a way to incentivize people that is not only fair, but also resilient (ie. hard to censored or stop).

Creating a critical mass of mesh relays is an obstacle that needs to be attacked from different angles. A well designed easy to use device is a good first step. Having long range and battery life is also important. Incentives are just one more piece of the puzzle we hope will lead to a world with mesh coverage comparable to centralized networks.


So true and it will be interesting to see how virtual currencies may finally start translating into real world resources in a useful, rather than an almost purely speculative way. That would get a lot of attention for the really useful example it would set. Technology often grants vast power, but unless it’s useful power the lack of a firm empirical reason for existence tends to eat away at the foundations of the invested power.

Maybe that sounds a little philosophical but I’m thinking of the topic of my research, nuclear weapons. Tremendously powerful, but almost useless except for their deterrent capacity - and there’s problem with that, too. Certainly if we look at the embodiment of centralized networks, such as the internet and cell networks, there are good things going on - and a lot of problems, too, without needlessly straying into current events. Decentralized networks driven from the bottom up by their users’ needs sounds like a preferable option for many current and future otherwise problematic use cases.


I used to run a public WiFi node as part of an old Seatttle meshnet project I can no longer remember the name of. I just thought it was cool, and didn’t really need incentivization beyond that. To my mind, incentivizing more hardware is higher leverage than ongoing cost. Of course, getting some form of currency for hosting/relaying transactions is a way of reimbursing infrastructure after someone is willing to make the initial investment. Do people really worry about being compensated for the grid electricity used while the device is on? I understand that not everyone is motivated by the same things, but that seems like a trivial expense. Among hunter-gatherer bands, it is often (usually?) the case that status (or respect or appreciation or whatever term we prefer) is conferred to those who make things flow rather than those who hoard. I like that view, and think it abstracts nicely to mesh networks.

@rmyers, In the Q&A section, you mentioned that the impetus of the talk was somewhat connected to the friction in network adoption, and figuring out how to incentivize more users and devices in the mesh. That’s a great question, and definitely worth tackling. Might I also suggest that another way to look at the question would be to place more focus on communities which have little to no [affordable] options? I live off-grid in an area with something like 8 households and ~30 people in an area that could probably be blanketed by 1 repeater strategically mounted on a hill. There’s no grid power, no landlines, and no cell service. We don’t need nearly the kind of incentivization that inhabitants of places like Seattle might, as they chose between myriad available subscriptions and devices.


I think the main incentive for putting up a relay would be to use it yourself either where you live or where you spend a great deal of time. To me, that’s enough motivation to put one up and maintain it. I fail to see a significant of enough revenue generated to warrant worrying about putting up additional nodes in areas less frequented by others. Densely populated areas I believe, would have sufficient altruistic people (or those just wanting their own coverage for their own needs) that a monetary incentive is unnecessary.

Just my thoughts, I may be proven wrong.


Interesting thoughts @feralist! I’m in the middle of reading Sapiens at the moment and I appreciate your non-urban perspective.

No - I doubt people will worry about that. But if I’m walking around with a mobile goTenna then having it on and relaying for others may marginally decrease my battery life. I think typically people will not notice any effect on battery life from relaying for others, but if you happen to be next to someone who is particularly chatty it could matter. Incentives are a way to help coordinate a balance of trade of air time with strangers.

A prerequisite for a system based on status/respect is a fixed identity. Privacy and pseudonymity is not a feature of a hunter-gatherer society. Money generally is a way to overcome this problem of social scaling but it is largely unnecessary for small groups where everyone knows each other. The main exception would be for trade between bands.

Good points. Connecting remote and off-grid communities may be best promoted right now by making it easier for people to run solar powered repeaters in optimal locations. Projects like the MOAN and what @Tourmaline_Wireless is doing.

In this case, I see your point. But if there was a gateway to the internet within range, but not part of your community, I think they would expect some sort of compensation for relaying messages to the outside world.


Bittorrent offers an interesting case history here. Different incentive systems were tried initially too, but now it largely functions based on reciprocity while people are downloading. Even if most people don’t seed after their download is done, enough people are using the system that just a few people seeding is enough.

I think an incentive system is one tool that can help bootstrap a community. But perhaps once a community has reached a critical mass it will be focused less on peoples longterm ratio of relayed to sent data.


Yes, this is probably the highest friction point with higher population densities. At some point, a significant number may also begin to assume the network density is sufficient enough that others’ units are performing the job their unit would, so there’s a lower perception of one’s value to the network. Various forms of quantification (money, gamification, etc.) which reinforce the individual’s perception of their own value to the network could alleviate this tendency from another angle. People like to feel valued, and some form of feedback is required.

The rub is that in urban settings, GTM might represent the 3rd (or higher) layer of redundancy for a user – just in wireless text communication options. Most people aren’t going to acutely feel the importance when awash in competing options.

Yes! The in-group vs. out-group dilemma is the inflection point. In small groups, feedback of one’s value is more signal and less noise.

Exactly. I replied to this thread from a “yes, and…” perspective. I think the kind of incentivization discussed in the talk is a smart and useful tool among the mix.