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Despite spreading wireless connectivity, so-called “data mules” still walk the last mile

— Sneakernets

Bandwidth limitations? Network connection problems? Security concerns about sharing via email or file transfer? The tried-and-true method of saving files on external devices, like thumb drives or burned discs, is alive and kicking.

They’re called sneakernets. The name refers to “sneakers”— literally, shoes—that physically walk data, instead of virtually sending them. Also known as “data mules”, these lo-fi transmitters still hang tough, despite constant technological advances and ever-faster transfer rates.

A leaked April 2012 report by music industry wonk and anti-piracy RIAA attorney Vicky Sheckler said that just 16 percent of all transferred music files were shared remotely, through peer-to-peer networks. The rest? Pirated across sneakernets via zip drives, floppy discs, thumb drives, or even the simple act of popping a CD into your computer and burning a copy.

Lo-tech sneakernets have their attractions. Not everyone has reliable web access or the quick connection speeds needed for larger data transfers. Also, some information is just too important to transfer using the ever-magical, but often insecure, electronic aether. Security and confidentiality is undeniably better served by a simple copy-and-carry—no encryption or PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) keys necessary.

In a 2009 cross-country sneakernet race, the South African company unlimited IT harnessed a four-gigabyte thumb drive to a carrier pigeon’s belly, creating a winged data mule. The bird flew 97 kilometers from the city of Howick to Durban, while an identical dataset was transferred simultaneously through a remote DSL Internet connection.

Which set arrived in Durban first? The pigeon’s. An English test of bird versus machine resulted in the same conclusion: feathers can be faster.

The university of California, Berkeley’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life (SETI) project also relies on the low-tech to analyze results from deep space. To transfer data from radio transmissions from the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, the information “walks” to the US via courier to be examined for signs of life.

Students in Cambodia access information via a passing motorcycle provided by First Mile Solutions.

Students in Cambodia access information via a passing motorcycle provided by First Mile Solutions.

Aliens and pigeons aside, sneakernets play a beneficial role at ground level. In locations that lack phones, mobile tech can provide an irreplaceable opportunity to communicate with the larger world—which, in turn, has spurred local development in rural areas.

In Cambodia, the Motoman Project, backed by a group called First Mile Solutions, shuttled a portable Internet connection between rural villages on the back of a motorcycle. First Mile equipped each Honda chopper with a Wi-Fi antenna, satellite uplink, and solar panel. Piloted with schools and health clinics, the network’s two-wheeled hotspots brought news, email, and a locally stored search engine.

The project has been mimicked across parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. But transportable connections go beyond feet and wheels. A recent partnership between scholars from Brazil’s universidade da Amazônia and university of Arizona proposed using watercrafts outfitted with mobile web access to bring email to people living along the Amazon River. Traveling up and down the river, the mobile hot spots would capture data and sync at stationary nodes called Peer Base Stations.

Slowly—by foot, boat, wing and sky—the world sneaks a fraction closer together.



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