Paul Gardner-Stephen, a research fellow in the School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, has devised a technology that relays calls directly from one phone to another.
The software will soon be available on the Serval Project Web site. It has two components: one creates a temporary, self-organizing, self-powered mobile network using phone towers dropped by air (as might be done in a crisis situation); the second supports a permanent mesh network that allows Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones, and eventually phones that connect via unlicensed frequencies (called Batphones), to communicate directly.
"Phones running our software relay calls between themselves," said Gardner-Stephen in a university news release. "If even just one of those can see a cell tower, then calls can be with any of the phones, thus sustaining communications in affected areas. A balloon is not necessary; a phone running our software at any vantage point can suffice."
Gardner-Stephen cites the recent flooding in parts of Australia, which disabled cell towers, as a use case for the technology. The ongoing communications blackout in Egypt represents another such scenario.
Mesh networks are not a new concept, as can be seen from the Mesh Potato. Such projects seem to share a goal of providing phone service to under-served or poor communities.
Gardner-Stephen says that any telephone carrier or handset maker can incorporate the Project Serval software and that the Project Serval team will be happy to help make that happen.
The promise of the Serval Project may sound tempting to those who'd rather not pay hefty smartphone bills every month -- "use your existing mobile phone number wherever you go, and never pay roaming charges again" -- but it remains to be seen how keen mobile carriers will be to get paid less for phone calls or nothing at all.
Add to that the difficulty of monitoring phone-to-phone communication, particularly if encryption is added, and it's likely that control-oriented governments will look for ways to limit this kind of technology in the name of combating terrorism.