Introducing the Serval Mesh  – an open source mesh telephone system piloted in Vanuatu

Introducing the Serval Mesh – an open source mesh telephone system piloted in Vanuatu

Information communication technologies (ICTs) have become a lifeline for people affected by disasters. ICTs help them to maintain contact with family and friends, and provide access to information, for example: where to find food, shelter or medical assistance. However, what happens when the traditional forms of ICTs, such as cellular towers, stop functioning or are not reachable at first place? Furthermore, the latter creates a level of inequality that is ever growing unless an alternative is developed. 

This trend has been described by Tim Unwin (2017) in his book “Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development, where he states that the poor and marginalised have been excluded from the benefits of ICTs, and are thus increasingly disadvantaged. As a consequence, the only way to empower and include the poor is to develop accessible, low-cost solutions.

A possible solution from Down Under?

Around 2010, an Adelaide-based not-for-profit organisation called the Serval Project together with New Zealand Red Cross came up with an idea of creating an open source, free of charge mobile telephone system. This system would provide communication in areas that are highly isolated and/or affected by disasters and lack access to a traditional cellular network. It is now known as the Serval Mesh. This mechanism uses ordinary mobile phone’s radio signals (built in Wi-Fi) that are not dependent on external infrastructure to establish a connection with other phones in the vicinity. Even though this software is currently primarily aimed at urgent communication post-disasters, it could also potentially be used to give access to communication for the most marginalised communities, where, for example, people often have to walk long distances to each other in order to communicate and share information.

“The Serval Project provides technology that is robust and can rapidly re-establish communication across community members and allow connection to the world. This is extraordinarily important step forward.”

Professor Paul Arbon (Flinders University)

Without delving into the technical details at depth, the Serval Mesh consists of:

  1. Software – a free smartphone app (currently only available for Android phones) allowing text messaging (similar to SMS), file sharing and phone calls; and
The mobile phone app and its available services
  1. Hardware – the Serval Mesh Extender, a low cost, portable pocket-size device facilitating communications among devices (runs on USB or solar power, and looks and acts like a Wi-Fi hub) using radio signals (currently) with a reach within ~9km radius. Can be attached to people’s homes, trees or any other nearby durable object.
Serval Mesh Extender, in its national environment, strapped to a tree

According to project lead Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen, the idea to use mobile phones as the main device came as most people have mobile phones, even if they have minimal access to cellular networks or a viable Internet connection and people use these to make photographs and play games instead. Hence, to make use of these readily available devices, once the Serval Mesh Extenders are securely on place, people can connect to the free-to-use Serval Mesh system via the downloadable app. Through this they can send text messages, files and make phone calls even when the conventional networks are down or not reachable. It is thus an innovative solution to be used for preparing for an emergency or when a disaster is or has already struck.

Sounds too good to be true?

For the project to be tested outside of the laboratory, in real-life environment, a substantial amount of funding was necessary. Luckily for the project, in 2016, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade launched the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, which called on local innovators to rethink humanitarian response in the Pacific. With 129 applications received, the Serval Project and their idea of the open source mesh telephone system became one of the winners to receive a grant of AUD 270,000. On top of that, further grants were received from the United States and the Netherlands. These funds where then used to improve the Serval system to prepare for a ‘real-life’ pilot in a Pacific island country.

Choosing suitable location for the pilot project

Dr Gardner-Stephen has explained that choosing Vanuatu as the location for their first pilot project was simple. Vanuatu is the most disaster prone country in the world, according to the World Risk Report of 2017. Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and situated on top of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is highly vulnerable to national disasters, from regularly occurring tropical storms, multiple active volcanoes and at significant risk of earthquakes.

At the same time, according to the World Bank, the mobile phone connectivity in Vanuatu is around 90 percent, showing the high number of mobile devices available and used in the country. However, the remaining 10 percent of potential users are often located in the most isolated and areas that face greater impact from disasters. These are areas where the manufacturing and erection of cellular towers makes minimal economic sense to the network provider; these populations have thus not benefitted from the rapid development of ICT infrastructure across their country. Hence, Vanuatu was a highly suitable location to test the Serval Mesh system. Since the pilot’s launch, the mesh system has been implemented and tested in four locations– in the capital city of Port Vila, which does have regular cellular signal, and in three island villages of Pang Pang, Epau and Maewo, which do not, hence making the last three as ideal locations to test the mesh system.

Initial response and future directions

As reported by the Project’s Preliminary Results, the initial responses from the beneficiaries and the Vanuatu Government have been highly positive. Once fully implemented and effective, the Serval Project is looking to expand its presence in Vanuatu by cooperating with local mobile phone carriers and conventional networks to create mesh-to-SMS gateways. These would extend the available communications coverage and potentially reach the isolated and disaster prone communities, not only to be used when disaster strikes, but also on a daily-basis for regular communication.

At the same time, it is important to remember that while initial progress and feedback has been positive, the Serval Mesh system is only in its very early pilot stage and will require multiple attempts and failures to demonstrate its full effectiveness. But for now, this definitely is a step in the right direction.

To learn more about this innovative development and its potential, I recommend following their official website or Twitter @ServalProject and listening to Dr Paul Gardner-Stephen’s TedxAdelaide speech:




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