Sunday, February 6, 2011

Cell Phone Calls Without Cell Towers?

There is a new technology about to be introduced that will allow you to make calls even if the cell towers in your area are down or have been "turned off."  Read about Project Serval.

Giulio Prisco (self portrait?)
Let us begin by saying that the idea for this article came from a friend Giulio Prisco, who has been talking about this idea on Facebook, influencing us to investigate it.  

With the increasing importance of electronic communication in the world, this communication is becoming indispensable.  We cannot live without them and have any hopes of continuing the modern technological lifestyle.

Imagine the recent disaster that happened in Haiti, or New Orleans, or the floods that have hit the Brisbane area of Australia.  These events require instant communication and information to safeguard the lives of millions.  Nowadays, this communication is accomplished through cell phone technology.  Yet these very events destroy the cell phone towers necessary for this kind of communication to take place. What can be done?

Imagine a despotic government that wishes to control what, how and even when their people communicate.  Countries like Egypt, China, North Korea, and Vietnam come to mind.  It is possible in these countries to shut down the Internet.  But no country has the power to shut down the Internet in the entire world.  No country has the power to shut down the Internet in a neighboring country.  Here is an interview with Professor Gardner-Stephens provided by timelady on the scenario in Egypt where the Internet was shut down.  If you cannot access this embedded sound file here is the link:
Mesh Networks in Authoritarian Regimes, with Dr. Paul Gardner-Stephen, founder of the Serval Project by salimfadhley

Paul Gardner-Stephens
This technological limitation of cell phone communications could be changed in a radical way at little or no cost, according to Professor Paul Gardner-Stephens of Flinders University in Australia.  He is using a so called "mesh network" to accomplish this.  What Professor Gardner-Stephens has done with his Project Serval is write open source apps for the Android platform and then presumably the iPhone as well as any other type of smart phone that has built in Wi-Fi.  This mesh network would use VOIP technology (voice over IP) to carry voice communications.  These phones would connect to each other in a semi daisy chain method until one of the phones was able to reach a cell tower to then send the voice communication anywhere in the world.  But, it would possible in theory to avoid any cell tower if there phones with this built in software and Wi-Fi abilities were ubiquitous.  These mesh networks cost a fraction of the expense as traditional cell phone towers.  This would open up the remaining 2 billion people on Earth to this technology at a cost of only a cell phone.  Gardner-Stephens idea is
Cisco visualization click to enlarge
that as Industrial nations discard their present smart phones, these will be made available to developing countries enabling this technology in their area.

Mesh networks follow a decentralized network structure with teach connection serving as a relay in the network as well.  Each connection, whether in the form of a cell phone, a computer, etc., can not only communicate to any other member of the network, but it can also relay an incoming call or data packet to another member of the network.  These mesh networks can assemble or disassemble themselves instantly and form smaller networks between nodes that are within range.  The U.S. military is using them in remote locations where there are no cell towers.  The implications of this kind of networking have enormous implications for the future business models of companies like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint as well as other international telecommunication companies.  The coming electrical "smart grid" in the United States will be using a mesh network.  Here are a group of videos explaining mesh networks.  If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:

There is a company called Village Telco which is already commercially pushing mesh networks.

Here is a video from Village Telco explaining their vision. If you cannot see the embedded video here is the link:  They have produced a piece of hardware called the Mesh Potato.  This product would allow each home to connect to the telephony system without a cell tower.  Of course as they say, it would have to be legal under the government's regulatory agency.  Under the question of are Village Telcos legal it states:
This is dependent on the local regulatory environment for telecommunications. In some developing countries, access to WiFi spectrum is still restricted and a Village Telco would either need a spectrum license or exemption from such a license. In some countries, WiFi innovators have had success by flying under the radar of regulation but it is hard to imagine Village Telcos going to scale without a regulatory framework that allows interconnection with other telecommunications networks.
Also this site states that the Village Telco is primarily intended for individual users at home.  This is quite different from the cell phone vision of Project Serval.

Steve Song - The Village Telco - TEDx Newtown from Steve Song on Vimeo.

Either way, this mesh networking and especially Project Serval promises to change the landscape of cellular and Wi-Fi communications in the future.


Thiruppathyraja said...

What an exciting experience!/Hilarious! Delightful! True!/wonderful stuff! thank you!
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Anonymous said...

already been dreaming about this for years but its a huge profit loss to the big cell companies..they will never let it happen.. Unless a renegade programmer writes it and throws it out there for free for the bennefit of humanity.

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