Cell phone chats--in the Australian Outback?

A research team heads into the wilderness to test its system that lets ordinary phones communicate even where there is no reception.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
2 min read

Serval Project
Paul Gardner-Stephen (left) of Australia's Flinders University talks with a colleague in the wilderness using his new system that lets phones communicate where there is no reception. Village Telco

The Australian Outback isn't generally a place you go expecting cell phone reception. But a group of researchers has managed to get phones working in the remote wilderness Down Under using a new system that lets ordinary phones communicate without phone towers or satellites.

The three-person team, led by Flinders University's "="" rel="nofollow" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank">Paul Gardner-Stephen--he of the working Maxwell Smart-style shoe phone--headed into the remote, sparsely populated "="" rel="nofollow" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank">Arkaroola Sanctuary over the weekend to test their Serval Project with hacked Android phones. Results were promising, with Gardner-Stephen chatting with a colleague on another mobile phone several hundred meters (about a quarter of a mile) away.

The Serval Project involves fitting phones with open-source software called Distributed Numbering Architecture (DNA) that essentially turns phones' Wi-Fi capability into a mini tower and lets them connect with other phones to form their own network. The software lets people use their existing phone numbers so they can be reached easily (an especially important feature in isolated areas and disasters, the team says).

Serval Project
A Serval "Batphone" goes for a test run at Arkaroola Sanctuary. Village Telco

For the weekend wilderness experiment, Gardner-Stephen and his engineer cohorts Dany Rakotopara and Romana Challans created a phone network covering 1 square kilometer.

By integrating DNA with hardware called "mesh potatoes" developed by Village Telco, Gardner-Stephen and his team say they will be able to provide telephone access to millions of people who currently lack affordable telephone coverage, as well as help those affected by disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like.

In mesh networking, each node in a network acts as an independent router, regardless of whether it's connected to another network. Village Telco's mesh hardware can be deployed quickly in strategic locations to relay phone calls and blanket areas with a mesh network.

The Serval system "will allow people in remote or isolated townships, or farm workers in network black spots to talk to each other," Gardner-Stephen said. "People in a disaster ravaged area will be able to contact friends and family and aid workers will be better able to coordinate relief efforts."

In addition to the Serval "Batphones," the Serval Project--named after an enterprising African wildcat--includes a temporary, self-organizing, self-powered mobile network for disaster areas, formed with small phone towers dropped in by air.

With the right financial support, Gardner-Stephen hopes his systems could be fully operational within 18 months.