A $2 Million Contest Seeks a Real-World Pied Piper to Solve Big Internet Challenges

As fictional geniuses in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” seek to reinvent the Internet, Mozilla and the NSF offer $2 million in prizes to decentralize it in the real world

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The fictional Richard Hendricks explains an Internet of mobile devices in HBO's “Silicon Valley”
The fictional Richard Hendricks explains an Internet of mobile devices in HBO's “Silicon Valley”
Photo: HBO

In Sunday’s season finale of HBO’s Silicon Valley, fictional startup Pied Piper’s attempt to create a decentralized Internet appears to have spectacularly failed, thanks to mobile phone explosions and a disastrous attempt to move a server. Then the distraught founders discover that their network is actually ticking along just fine. But how? It turns out that it has jumped to smart refrigerators. Now that’s resilient!

The Internet of refrigerators is, of course, fiction. But could an Internet that is this resilient—or nearly so—be a reality? Mozilla and the U.S. National Science Foundation think it’s possible, and aim to accelerate its creation by offering $2 million in prize money to teams that invent it—or at least get close.

“We’ve picked two of the most challenging situations in which people are disconnected from the Internet,” Mozilla program manager Mehan Jayasuriya told me. These are, “Connecting people in the U.S. who don’t have reliable or affordable Internet and connecting people as quickly as possible after a major disaster, when the traditional networks go down.”

Mozilla and the NSF are addressing that first group—an estimated 34 million people—with the “Smart-Community Networks Challenge” that seeks wireless technology designed to enhance Internet connectivity by building on top of existing infrastructure.

For the second group, there’s the “Off-The-Grid Internet Challenge.” That contest seeks technology that can be quickly deployed after a disaster to allow people to communicate when Internet access is gone.

The teams submit initial designs, and then later, working prototypes. Prizes at the design stage range from $10,000 to $60,000. At the working prototype stage, the stakes range from $50,000 to $400,000, with one of the top awards given for each challenge category.

Judging criteria for both challenges include affordability, feasibility, social impact, and scalability. Off-the-grid technology also has to be portable and have a portable power source. The smart community networks technology will also consider density, range, bandwidth, and security. Potential entrants must submit an intent to apply form by 15 October; the whole thing wraps up next August.

“A lot of projects out there address some parts of these problems,” Jayasuriya says. “With $2 million on the table, we are hoping this challenge encourages people to fill their technologies out.”

Were Pied Piper a real company, it would have a decent chance at winning some of that cash. Says Jayasuriya:

It’s the kind of thing we are looking for—a big idea, a crazy idea, an idea about how you piggyback on things that already exist. Pied Piper’s approach is like that, looking at all the phones out there and thinking that these phones have radios, and power, and CPUs, so why wouldn’t you take them and turn them into nodes on a network.

Jayasuriya is hopeful that the contest will lead to real change. The structure of the competition, he says, is designed to push design teams to build working prototypes, so the winner, with $400,000 in seed money, will be well positioned to attract partnerships or investment capital, and get the product out into the world.

A version of this post appears in the September 2017 print issue as “A $2 Million Contest Seeks Solutions to Big Internet Challenges.”

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