How Phone-Powered Mesh Networks Could Help in Egypt
by Kevin C. Tofel / Feb. 1, 2011

Mobile broadband is arguably the most empowering technology that’s currently driving the cloud, smartphone and app markets, but it’s simply not feasible to cover every square inch of the planet with a fast wireless connection. So how does one communicate with others in an area without any cellular coverage, or when governments request a shut down of network services? The answer may lie within phones that create a direct relay system to transmit voice or data. This approach is called a mesh network, which enables a device to both receive and retransmit signals, much like a router does in home wireless network. The below video from ABC News Adelaide shows the mesh network in action on basic Android handsets, with researchers communicating to each other by voice, even though there are no cellular towers in range.

You can easily tell in the video spot that the voice quality is sub-par and therefore, best suited for emergency communication in remote areas outside of traditional network coverage. But the peer-to-peer voice technology could improve as radios and software continue to evolve. The scenario reminds me of one of my first Skype calls back in 2004 — ironically, to someone in Australia — the call was filled with delays and echos, but still usable. Just use Skype now to see how the technology has been refined and improved. While carriers control much of the handset experience and have little to no incentive to trying to mature a communications technology that bypasses their networks, I’d like to see such mesh network research efforts continue. Think of the current situation in Egypt, where protests, tweets and phone calls have put the region front and center on the world stage and have caused the Egyptian government to effectively shut down Internet access in the country.

That’s just one step short of closing down cellular voice communications. In an extreme case such as that, phones that can enable direct communication through a handset relay system would enable families, emergency crews and others to avoid a total communications black-out. Data too could be routed through such mesh networks, ensuring that tweets and web services continue to flow. And while many voice and data networks are still separate today, the rise of 4G networks will eventually bring voice traffic over the web too, so any future Internet shut-downs could impact voice calls. Will mesh or peer-to-peer technologies completely replace traditional networks for voice, or data, for that matter? That’s highly unlikely due to many corporate, legal and technological challenges. But should such relay services and software solutions continue to be looked at as backup plans? I’d say yes, and I’m willing to bet a fair number of people in Egypt right now would agree.

Project Serval aims to enable communication anywhere, any time, without infrastructure, cell towers, or mobile carriers.
Android Software Connects Calls Without Mobile Carriers
by Thomas Claburn / February 1, 2011

A university researcher in Australia has developed software that allows Android phones to make voice calls without the help of a mobile carrier. Paul Gardner-Stephen, a research fellow in the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has devised a technology that relays calls directly from one phone to another. The software will soon be available on the Serval Project Web site. It has two components: one creates a temporary, self-organizing, self-powered mobile network using phone towers dropped by air (as might be done in a crisis situation); the second supports a permanent mesh network that allows Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones, and eventually phones that connect via unlicensed frequencies (called Batphones), to communicate directly. “Phones running our software relay calls between themselves,” said Gardner-Stephen in a university news release. “If even just one of those can see a cell tower, then calls can be with any of the phones, thus sustaining communications in affected areas. A balloon is not necessary; a phone running our software at any vantage point can suffice.”

Gardner-Stephen cites the recent flooding in parts of Australia, which disabled cell towers, as a use case for the technology. The ongoing communications blackout in Egypt represents another such scenario. Mesh networks are not a new concept, as can be seen from the Mesh Potato. Such projects seem to share a goal of providing phone service to under-served or poor communities. Gardner-Stephen says that any telephone carrier or handset maker can incorporate the Project Serval software and that the Project Serval team will be happy to help make that happen. The promise of the Serval Project may sound tempting to those who’d rather not pay hefty smartphone bills every month — “use your existing mobile phone number wherever you go, and never pay roaming charges again” — but it remains to be seen how keen mobile carriers will be to get paid less for phone calls or nothing at all. Add to that the difficulty of monitoring phone-to-phone communication, particularly if encryption is added, and it’s likely that control-oriented governments will look for ways to limit this kind of technology in the name of combating terrorism.
Charities and NGOs express interest in mobile mesh networking
Mobile communication without traditional infrastructure
by James Hutchinson / 29 January 11

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.

Natural disasters
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. 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.

No threat to telcos
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 for 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.

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