Opinion: Network alternatives in an emergency

A review of how the 111 emergency service performed following the Christchurch earthquake is due soon

A government review of how the emergency 111 service performed following the Christchurch earthquake in February last year is due for release shortly.

It has been widely recognised that the telcos did a reasonable job during the crisis and its aftermath. However, at an event in Florida a month after the quake, the head of Trilogy International John Stanton, majority owner of 2degrees, said mobile networks in Christchurch were damaged more by the February 22 earthquake than by the 2010 quake that devastated Haiti (Trilogy also owns a mobile network it that country). He said infrastructure was hit more heavily here because it relied on shared towers and commercial power.

This was swiftly refuted by Telecom head of external media Mark Watts who sent through a statement, which we published in its entirety. Here’s a sample of what he wrote: “The article states that the mobile infrastructure in New Zealand was hit more heavily than Haiti because it relied on shared towers and commercial power. This is demonstrably wrong. The vast majority of Telecom’s mobile network was operating within hours of the earthquake, and service was available even in the badly damaged CBD.”

So it will be interesting to see what the review turns up, and also if it explores alternative ideas of enabling fast, effective communication during an emergency.

One idea mentioned to me by the president of the Open Source Society, Dave Lane, is a project called Serval in Australia.

My initial understanding is that Serval is an open source software program for Android smartphones which enables communication between mobile devices within a defined area. As it bypasses the cell towers, this would help during a crisis situation when the mobile networks are congested and/or infrastructure is destroyed.

I’ve had a brief email conversation with founder Paul Gardner-Stephen who summarised the program as follows: “Serval will still let you send and receive SMS (actually MeshMS), and distribute maps, files, photos, software updates, position information and a host of other things all without supporting infrastructure.”

Gardner-Stephen was testing Serval in New Zealand with the Red Cross earlier this month, and you can read more about those trials on his blog.

Lane says he’s installed Serval on his Android but he has only been able to do so because it is ‘rooted’ (basically that means it is stripped of its proprietary settings). If you root your phone, it makes the warranty null and void, so Lane would like to see the telcos mandated to allow this kind of software on all the devices they sell.

Effectively this would mean the mobile network owners would be selling a product that bypasses their services – an extremely altruistic move by the telcos I would have thought.

However, Gardner-Stephen says that while full functionality of the Serval software requires you to make use of the root privileges on an Android phone, “it can still work (with a few caveats) on a regular in-warranty non-rooted phone.”

The Christchurch review follows a separate review of the entire 111 system, for which a discussion paper was released last month. Submissions for this are due on March 30.

A spokesperson for ICT minister Amy Adams says this review is about the governance framework of the calling system, but “submissions are encouraged by interested parties that could contribute towards a more efficient and effective system.”

A clear invitation from the minister to suggest alternatives; let’s hope they will be seriously considered.

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