As radio amateurs, we are in a unique position with our skills, competency and equipment during a time of emergency to assist in recreating communications networks. I can’t think of very many states that don’t have an active WICEN group.
Recently when Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit the Queensland coast, of the biggest impacts was the outage of mobile phone communications in the areas affected.
The effect of this weather which is more likely to affect the North-West of WA, is similar during times of bushfire or flooding. Once tower infrastructure is damaged, or mains generator power is lost, it’s not long before the mobile network falls.
In Australia, we are a [reasonably] developed nation. These phone towers provide a great solution to providing communications on a large scale, to the point where there are now very few alternatives. The impact of losing a mobile phone network on less developed countries, many of which has swapped wires for the air waves – has an even bigger impact.
But.. if you focus on a solution to bring communications back to a smaller community – there are other alternatives
Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, and President of The Serval Project here in Australia, has spent the past seven years designing low-cost devices and free software to try to solve this problem. The concept is simple: they create Mesh Extender devices that act as communications hubs.
Mobile phones connect to Mesh Extenders using ordinary Wi-Fi. The Mesh Extender devices then relay communications between other mobile phones using an app that can be downloaded from the Mesh Extender itself. No internet or cellular network is required.
Installation of the app is all that is required to connect a mobile phone to the Mesh Extender system, and all communication that takes place on the network is encrypted, so the user’s privacy remains secure.
They system currently operates within a closed network, only connecting with mobile phones that already have the app installed. To connect with existing phone networks, partnerships with existing mobile operators would need to be formed in the future.
The advantage of using Wi-Fi is that it is already in almost every mobile phone on the planet. Its range, however, it still quite limited.
So to make their system work over useful distances, the Mesh Extenders have a second radio installed. That radio can communicate over several kilometers, as long as there are no significant obstacles.
By linking to a VHF or HF radio, there is a possibility here this could even be hundreds or thousands of kilometers.
At the moment, this idea is still experimental. They have built prototype devices and apps, but have not yet been widely tested.
This is starting to change. In 2016, the Serval Project was selected as one of five winning innovators to take part in the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, which aims to rethink the Australian response to humanitarian disasters in the Pacific.
They are now getting ready to test their technologies in Vanuatu later this year. Their goal is simple: to understand how useful the solutions are today, and to identify the areas where the can be improved.
The pilot is an important step in their quest to provide effective communication alternatives.
Not only will it help to meet the needs of vulnerable Pacific Island populations during times of disaster, but it will also help to better understand how this technology could be used locally in Australia.
I mentioned cyclones and bushfires earlier. But the technology could also be used to assist remote, isolated Australian communities with little to no communication options.
Would you like to know more – head over to VK6.net and look for this story related to the SERVAL project.
It contains links to: