Boffins squeeze a mesh onto Android handsets
Mobile phone, or network relay?
Australian researchers have ported Wi-Fi mesh-networking onto the Android platform, potentially turning any Android handset into a relay able to extend network coverage into disaster areas.
The newly-demonstrated project is called Serval, after a kind of cat, and enables a standard Android handset to make voice calls (VoIP), which are relayed though one or more handsets back to the cellular network: it's not a new idea, but doing it with standard handsets makes it a great deal more practical.
The TETRA phone system, used by emergency services across Europe, is supposed to be able to do the same thing – every TETRA handset should be able to operate as a relay. In fact the functionality is limited to vehicle-mounted radios, but still useful to those called upon to attend remote regions without time to prepare something more suitable.
In Sweden TerraNet has spent the last few years trying to do much the same thing – with the laudable aim of bringing connectivity to the third world through spontaneous meshing at 2.4GHz, but with limited success.
More recently, we have Peep Wireless, which got loads of press a few weeks back and is now busy raising money on the back of promises to make every phone a relay using (according to its website) the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Without bothering to provide any details of how it's going to work this magic of course.
Unlike the chaps in Oz, who first demonstrated a working relay last year, and now have one running on Android. Admittedly the quality is suited to emergency situations, where no better alternative is available, but using standard kit makes the whole thing much, much, cheaper, and the group's commitment to providing the eventual software for free (and open sourced) could see mesh voice in all sorts of places. ®
... so it is not this one?
Does it even have to get out of the mesh? Here's this thing you download on your phone, it lets you connect with anyone else who has also downloaded it (where there is a path of hops available), totally avoiding any commercial network at all. Free communication with anyone on the mesh locally (which could cover a lot of square kms in heavily populated areas), attractive, leading to the mesh getting a higher and higher thread count, making it more and more attractive...
I would wager that the people in Egypt were more concerned with communicating with each other than they were with getting sound bytes out to western media. Mesh doesn't need to be a means to an end, it could be an end in itself.
It's nice to see this capability spreading to smart phones, you can already set your house up to be part of a wireless mesh. Even if only used for communicating with people in your local area, it can still lower your costs in these hard times. It's not just another way to get access to an existing network, it can be a whole new network all by itself, useful on its own. Plus no huge treasure trove of data centrally stored for security forces and their puppet masters to comb through. Double plus good!
Many many large authoritarian organizations would dislike this sort of thing becoming mainstream, not just cell phone companies - so full steam ahead!!
Android is pretty much the only place where this kind of thing would even be allowed to be possible (as far as mobile phones), yet another reason to go this route.
Admittedly the quality is suited to ...
people talking a form of English with G'day as a preamble and interspersed with words such as fair dinkum, corker, bizo, etc.
...that cell companies would like this software. It doesn't necessarily have to end at 3G point - if it ends up on a wifi hotspot, they're out of luck.
A walkie talkie app would be nice
With all those transceivers on board there must be a way to do local two-way chat. Killer app, and adding mesh makes it even better ;-)