No Cell Service? Need 911? Mesh Networking May Help

Cellular-free mobile phone service and Wi-Fi boosters are part of the next generation of technologies that could make communication during disasters easier.
by Caroline Cournoyer | August 20, 2013 AT 5:00 PM

A catastrophic earthquake or hurricane can easily wreak havoc on communications systems. But while redundancies are typically built-in to avoid downtime, governments could use a more comprehensive backup mobile network.

One concept public-sector officials may find useful is mesh networking. The technology allows mobile phones to share data and messages with one another over a local area when there’s no active cellular network available. In addition, mesh networking can potentially help offload communications surges from working networks during periods of high activity.

The New Zealand Red Cross and the so-called Serval Project, have worked together over the past several years to create Serval Mesh, a free software program that uses a smartphone's Wi-Fi to form impromptu networks consisting of only mobile phones. The idea was conceived in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which left large areas of the country with limited or no communications.

Paul Gardner-Stephen, co-founder of the Serval Project, called the technology a complementary mobile communications solution that can sustain productivity for governments, businesses and individuals when normal cellular networks aren’t available. Serval Mesh doesn’t provide access to the Internet; it just passes data and text messages back and forth between mobile phones that are connected to the Serval network.

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“This approach adds a new element to communications redundancy to bolster reliability,” Gardner-Stephen said. “We already have horizontal redundancy in the form of multiple [commercial] carriers providing equivalent services in most markets. Mesh communications adds a vertical element to the redundancy, giving smartphones a new mode of communication, albeit a localized one.”

Earlier this year, a prototype mesh network with a range of more than a mile was set up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of a demonstration project. One group stood at the Lincoln Memorial and exchanged text messages and files with another group at the Washington Monument, without using any existing cellular network services.

“Now that we have developed a track record and have a product to demonstrate, we are looking more seriously at government funding, as well as support from larger non-government organizations who see the value in what we’re developing,” Gardner-Stephen added.

Another technology innovation could be used in tandem with mesh networks to connect to the Internet, giving government agencies a vital communications option during a disaster. Called BRCK, the device boosts existing weak Wi-Fi signals to expand the connectivity of local users who need access to the Internet.

For example, if an emergency vehicle is equipped with BRCK and is responding to a situation in a remote area with spotty Wi-Fi coverage, the booster will grab the signal and push it out so a user has a more reliable connection to the Internet. In addition, if multiple vehicles are involved and all have BRCKs in their trunks, the one booster picking up a Wi-Fi signal can repeat it out over the Wi-Fi chain so that all vehicles have connectivity.

BRCK was created by Ushahidi, a nonprofit organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. The group specializes in the development of open source technology. Jonathan Shuler, Ushahidi’s research and development manager, said part of the reason BRCK was designed was to help solve the company’s own connectivity issues in the African nation, where Internet service can be inconsistent. Shuler said that the connectivity at Ushahidi’s office in Nairobi is only up about 75 percent of the time and at certain parts of the day the speed slows down quite a bit. He added that the power also goes out frequently.

When that happens, BRCK serves as a backup by having its own power source and grabbing any 3G wireless signals being broadcasted and distributing them throughout a general location.

“We designed BRCK to be as much of an Internet scavenger as possible within the confines of being legal, obviously,” Shuler said. “You would be basically breaking some pretty big encryptions to jump on your neighbor’s Wi-Fi. Now, if it’s open Wi-Fi, if your neighbor hasn’t locked that down, the BRCK would grab that signal and repeat it.”

However, Joe Hoffman, a mobile networks expert for ABI Research, wasn’t convinced the technology would effectively support mission critical applications over the long term. He believed Serval Mesh and BRCK could be useful in a redundancy capacity, or in emergency situations, but felt it would behoove governments to keep up with the latest technology so they have widespread connectivity when needed.

But Gardner-Stephen and Shuler felt their respective technologies will have a place in government’s future. Ushahidi is looking at satellite communications as a way to give BRCK its own Internet access. In addition, the company is also looking at what possibilities exist to access and use white space communications frequencies — the unused spectrum between TV stations. Ushahidi is talking with a group that is developing a properly-integrated circuit for a white space modem.

The Serval Project is also interested in potentially being a part of the federal government’s First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is developing a nationwide public safety communications network throughout the United States.

“In the same way that Serval can complement consumer cellular networks, it could complement the cellular-like part of FirstNet with a resilient backup communications capability,” Gardner-Stephen said.