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Telecommunications anywhere, anytime

Posted by Bestprac on May 31 2012

by Liz Guerin
Being able to communicate is a vital part of society and now Australian researchers from Flinders University, Adelaide, are working to ensure everyone has access to telecommunications.

They have developed software that allows mobile phones to communicate with each other, even where there is no reception, and with current communication options in rural and remote areas of Australia being limited, either in terms of availability, reliability or cost, –this development is great news for farmers and rural industries.

The Serval Project promises “Telecommunications anywhere, anytime” and aims to provide fast, cheap, robust and effective communications systems where conventional phone infrastructure has been destroyed or is not cost effective.

Dr Paul Gardner-StephenFounder of the project, Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, said that what he and his research team designed from the outset was to meet the needs of three main user groups: rural and remote communities,developing countries and people affected by disaster.

“The common theme across all of these groups is that communication infrastructure is either not available, it can’t be used because it is broken or everyone else is trying to use it, or you can’t afford to use it,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said.

“Whilst a lot of other people have looked at communications that can work in reduced infrastructure settings, no one looked at using off the shelf phones in a situation where there is absolutely NO infrastructure,” he said. “So our challenge was to determine how to use these devices and force something to behave, as much as possible, as a regular phone network where there isn’t one.”

The project has created software which allows normal mobile phones to communicate with one another even where there is no reception. This expands the reach of mobile phone networks by turning each mobile into a mesh network node using standard wireless technology.

“As most modern mobile handsets have a built-in Wi-Fi signal, each phone acts as a mobile “repeater” for signals and an ad-hoc communications network can be used to carry phone calls where there is no regular mobile service,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said.

According to Dr Gardner-Stephen, mesh-optimised handsets that operate on suitable spectrums, (eg. the Industrial Scientific and Medical band at 915 MHz), promise much greater range especially in remote and emerging regions – potentially kilometres between phones.

One aspect of the project that Dr Gardner Stephen and his team find incredibly exciting is the potential for substantial automatic data transfer and it’s applications for farming industries and communities.

“Whether you are weighing stock, monitoring tank levels or simply keeping tabs on where farm vehicles are, data can be collected in near real time either by physically connecting the phone to scales or typing the numbers in via a special app on the phone,” he said. “Once the phone comes into wireless range the data automatically hops over via the mesh – so no-one actually has to do the data transfer, it just happens in the background by itself, totally automatically.”

With the software due for release in September, Dr Gardner-Stephen said that recent field trials conducted in deep valleys and heavily forested areas of New Zealand, were very successful.

“In areas where reception was non-existent we were able to collect and distribute data, photos, and even push out updates for the mesh software itself over the mesh,” he said. “What was exciting was that after a only a week, users were so comfortable with it and had seen how well it worked that the mesh became their preferred option because they knew that was where the most up to date data would be available.”

Dr Gardner-Stephen has always intended to release the software as ‘open source’.

“We want to make it freely available for all people for all time rather than doing it as a purely commercial endeavour,” he said. “We want everyone to be able to use and benefit from it.”

On discussing the National Broadband Network (NBN), Dr Gardner-Stephen said that country people are known to be innovative and resourceful and there is great potential for the people who are going to be left out, under NBN fibre connections, to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and do it themselves.

“Community orientated solutions are often the best where local people get together to work out how to solve the problem, formulate a plan and implement it,” he said. “Often the running costs are lower because there isn’t a company making a profit out of the infrastructure.”

He says that there are many examples around the world where communities have banded together and made the connections themselves with great success and, in Australia, providing you don’t cross any public roads with the fibre there may be no impediment under the Telecommunications Act to doing this.

“On rural allotments, if you want to run a fibre cable from boundary to boundary, you just do it, so working co-operatively with neighbours can get quite a distance,” Dr Gardner-Stephen said. “It is surprisingly easy to do with the people within the community ending up with the skills and it is a community effort with a combination of skills that enable it to happen.”

The Serval project team are interested to hear from people in pastoral areas who want to use the technology and work with the research team to enable them to do that.

“If we can enable communications where it is currently not possible, or too expensive, we will be helping people vulnerable or disadvantaged simply because of where they live. Then we will be really happy that we have made a positive impact in the world.”

For more information, please visit http://servalproject.org/ or email enquiries@servalproject.org.

Last changed: Jun 01 2012

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