Mobile mesh network finds interest in NGOs

A research project aimed at allowing mobile phones to communicate without traditional infrastructure has attracted phone manufactures and not-for-profits looking to leverage the technology.

Paul Gardner-Stephen, who co-founded the Serval project, first demonstrated the mesh network technology while experimenting with the use of Wi-Fi transmitters on phones to carry VoIP conversations.

The makeshift capability is capable of transmitting a few hundred metres, but could conceivably harness other phones and inexpensive Wi-Fi transmitters in the area to provide more coverage, even if hundreds of kilometres away from a mobile phone tower.

"We are actually carrying voice over that but in a way that doesn't need to go back to a central repository anywhere," Flinders University researcher, Paul Gardner-Stephen, told ABC Local Radio program, AM, at the time.

Initial expectations were that the experimental mobile technology would be used in cases of a natural disaster, allowing rescue workers to communicate with each other and to head office, either by utilising each others’ mobile phones as transmitters themselves or by deploying portable Wi-Fi transmitters by plane.

Presenting at 2011 this week, Gardner-Stephen said community response had already surpassed expectations, with the Australian Red Cross voicing enthusiasm at the possibilities.

“They said during the Victorian bushfires - and I was flabbergasted when I heard this - they lost contact with crews for three days in the midst of the bushfires,” he said. “That’s one of the things that this technology can work to.”

Gardner-Stephen said one phone manufacturer had also registered interest, though continuing talks with carriers around improving existing mobile infrastructure in rural areas were non-productive.

(See the launch of the Serval balloon in pictures)

The Serval project has garnered $1000 in funding from The Awesome Foundation while Gardner-Stephen gained a three-year fellowship with Flinders University, allowing him to work on the project full-time.

The research project, which now counts seven people among its members, has continued to work on improving the technology, with plans to move away from data-heavy SIP voice protocols to an open source standard developed in-house.

The software is soon expected to work across all Android devices as well as iOS, Windows Mobile and other platforms, though the project is also looking to develop ‘Batphones’ that work over unlicensed frequencies rather than Wi-Fi.

Gardner-Stephen used his presentation at to provide the first public demonstration of the newly implemented PSTN gateway, allowing outbound calls from enabled devices to standard landline and mobile phones.

Demonstrated on a “rooted” HTC Dream, or Google G1, the device called a mobile phone on a standard 3G network over Wi-Fi, while in airplane mode. A similar demonstration between two enabled devices operating over the mesh network wasn’t as successful.

Later during the day, Gardner-Stephen performed another demonstration at the conference, launching a hot-air balloon with Wi-Fi transmitter attached to provide greater coverage between mesh devices.

Serval’s attempt at creating a “best effort network” in areas without mobile coverage was not a threat to the existing telecommunications landscape, Gardner-Stephen said.

“In actual fact, telcos are the ideal people to provide the interconnect between the local meshes,” he said. “Certainly fro the first telco to partner with us, there’s actually some enormous dividends to be had.

“We’re excited that this technology is not going to cost anyone a cent, there’s no reason why it can’t be put in every phone that’s physically capable of supporting it and that it can save lives, that it can save stress and duress in disasters. That it can connect the last two billion, and actually the last five billion, to the internet, because it’s all over IP.”

Though Gardner-Stephen couldn’t confirm plans on IPv6 compatibility for the software, he said each of the phones connected to the mesh network would effectively share a single IPv4 address with a unique subscriber identifier used to differentiate between devices.

David Rowe, another presenter at the 2011 conference, talked about the the successes of a similar mesh-like telephone technology Village Telco in the East Timorese capital of Dili.

(See the launch of the Serval balloon in pictures)

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

Shop Tech Products at Amazon