IBM has initiated a peer-to-peer communications ability for its Watson-driven Weather Channel app at PartnerWorld Leadership Conference last week.

Existing smartphones using this app will be able to keep abreast of weather developments even in emergencies when the Internet and cellular networks are down. It works by forming a peer-to-peer mesh network conduit to the Weather Channel using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

The peer-to-peer mesh network is useful in developing countries, where cellular coverage is spotty. Every time a user wanders beyond the range of his or her country exists cellular towers, the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth transmitter in their handset searches for the nearest user who is within range of the tower. That phone acts as a hotspot, transmitting the Weather Channel content to the out-of-range peer. Concurrently, the peer's phone itself becomes a hotspot for users even further away from the main tower.

As users travel further from the nearest tower, their phones form a mesh network of hotspots serving phones further away, thus filling in the gap between towers. And in the event of total tower failure, a complete Wi-Fi peer-to-peer network will form with the Weather Channel's own Wi-Fi tower as the originator of broadcasts.

No drain on battery

Ordinarily, this sort of peer-to-peer network (using Wi-Fi Peer-to-Peer) would not work for general usage, because it would run down the batteries of the peers in constant hot-spot mode. But IBM has confined the hotspot usage to small, short bursts of low-bit-rate information ‐ just enough to update the essential data, such as temperature, precipitation and maps, plus emergency warnings, such as "tsunami" estimated time of arrival (ETA). As a result, the users’ battery life should not be adversely affected, especially since the bursts use less energy than a normal online cellular connection.

Called "Mesh Network Alerts," the services will first be available in 42 developing countries [yes, India is included], which are in the great need because of scant distribution of cell towers ‐ spotty-at-best outside of urban environments and congested within urban environments. IBM also claims that peer-to-peer is a better solution than drones or balloons since it is here today. Also, instead of becoming congested with more users, mesh networks actually work better with more users by offering multiple routes to the same information.

The Weather Channel app itself is just 3.2 megabytes (launching in seconds even on 2G networks), small enough for any cell phone that runs apps and includes storage for 24 hours of weather data. The only hitch is that you need to load it into your phone before the emergency.

First published by EE Times.