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Summary:

With a complete shut-down of Internet access in Egypt, the next drastic step would be the closure of voice communication networks. But researchers in Australia have demonstrated the use of mesh networks on smartphones, which enable voice calls in areas without a working cellular infrastructure.

Egyptian protests by Muhammed Ghafari

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.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari

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  1. This is similar to the capability of Nextel phones to drop off the cellular network and form a direct network of phones. My brother-in-law uses this when hunting, as the cellular coverage is very limited where he hunts. But with everyone on Nextel, the direct network allows them to still talk.

    Regarding data, it would work, except that at least one phone would still require a connection to the internet. In Egypt this weekend, that might still have been difficult.

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  2. I was thinking of Nokia’s Instant Community app that uses low-powered ad-hoc wifi to allow for voice, message, pictures and video to be exchanged. I found some info about it here https://lausanne.nokiaresearch.com/nic/ and I think it will be a part of their new MeeGo device but it also works with Symbian.

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    1. Super example, Stuart! Looks like the research project has many TBDs yet, but I’m intrigued – thanks for sharing it!

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  3. I believe the Egyptian government did infact turn off the cellular networks for several hours in Cairo a few days ago so this is even more relevant than you think.

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  4. On behalf of the Serval Project, which is the one featured above, I would like to thank you for the coverage.

    We believe passionately in communications as a human right – regardless of location, politics, or financial status.

    We also aim to fill the void in communications infrastructure in times of emergency or disaster.

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  5. Egypt is having some minor difficulties with access to Al Gore’s Information Superhighway (known to many as simply The Internet or just The Net). The really awesome thing is how Egypt is embracing Freedom and Democracy which is much more important than the net. I just hope and pray that one day we will get that Freedom here in America (aka United States)!

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  6. Other than the implementation on Android handsets this is old news. DARPA started research in this area 20 years ago and 10 years ago commercial companies were being launched to exploit it. The most successful was MeshNetworks but there are several others, Tropos, Strix and Aruba to name a few.
    The IEEE got involved in 2004 to standardize mesh networking for 802.11 (WiFi) and the WiFi Direct initiative from the WiFi Alliance is an outcome of those efforts.
    WiFi on an Android handset, or any other, has a range of about 100m. The only practical solution today is a good old FRS walkie-talkie, dirt cheap and a range over 2Km.

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  7. [...] isn’t that new — Qualcomm showed it off back in June at its developer conference, but given the attention given lately for distributed networks thanks to Egyptian protests and the shut down of the country’s Internet infrastructure for a few days, it’s time [...]

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  8. [...] Asterix and OpenBTS, with new projects for mesh networking known as The Serval Project, which Kevin covered earlier this month and Commotion, open source firmware to enable routers to create an open mesh network. Dan Meredith, [...]

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  9. [...] or at least an intranet over which people could communicate, appear more important. We’ve covered some of those efforts as well as the U.S.’s hypocrisy in drawing a line between web freedoms and the dissemination [...]

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