How Serval Mesh Makes You a Hero 1


I Can Hear You Now – Serval Cat Portrait, courtesy of Wikipedia

Imagine a serious earthquake. A tsunami. A forest fire, a terrorist attack, an erupting volcano. Whatever. You get the idea. Now imagine that not everyone in your family or among your friends is in the same location when it happens. You want to make sure they are all right, so you whip out your cell phone and try to call them.

But the cell towers are piles of steaming rubble. No calls go through. So you have no way to contact your child, who may be fine or may be buried under several tons of collapsed school building, no way to find out if your wife made it home safely from the grocery store, no way to contact your husband and tell him you’re fine and you hope he is, too.

What is the solution? Well, obviously, a Batphone. And you can turn your very own cellphone into one in about three minutes. Plus, you keep your existing number.

Serious Solution to a Serious Issue

Not a joke, people. Dr. Paul Gardner-Stevens, a Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders, Australia, has developed the Serval Mesh software, named after the African serval, a cat with large ears and sensitive hearing. The Serval Mesh is an adhoc method of wifi connection that let’s your cell phone act as its own transmitter to other cell phones with the (free) software installed.  And it is sometimes fondly called “The Batphone.”


The open source Serval Mesh software enables mobile phones to communicate with each other independent of supporting infrastructure. Using Wi-Fi the phones form a self-configuring network to exchange files, voice and text messages.”

The current limitation of this technology is distance. However, Dr. Gardner-Stevens has been working on that as well, and the Serval Mesh Extender is now operable and he has distributed it to the more needy among various third world needers. Unfortunately, this is one of those infamous “disruptive technologies” (that disrupt wealthy corporations’ business models) so the telecom companies are not encouraging it.  However, the <coff>  cat is out of the bag, so to speak, as the code is open source.  So you could build your own. You could even take a shot at becoming a local infant telecom service.

Who might want to do that? What leaps to mind immediately are the expats living on Panama beaches where they “enjoy” intermittent phone service. With the Serval Mesh, at a minimum they would be able to phone the neighbors. In the event of a snake bite or other such occasion that might prevent them from simply running next door with the news, the Serval Mesh could be a lifesaver.

As the US Embassy Warden for the southern Azuero Peninsula in Panama (a voluntary position similar to an air raid warden in WWII) part of my responsibility is a bit of disaster planning. I encourage everyone on my list of expats living here to download the Serval Mesh software and if they can find it, the Serval Mesh Extender.  I’m also putting as many of my Panamanian neighbors on it as possible.  Whether you are in my area or not, please think about doing it. Statistically, more than two-thirds of the help that becomes available in an emergency is from local people. How much more helpful might it be for everyone involved to be able to communicate with each other? Once this software is on a phone, it can be transferred from that phone to another nearby without the need to access the originating source. Think what a hero that could make you if it were YOUR phone, and how many lives you might bless.

Where to Get It

So where to get the Serval Mesh? If you have an Android phone, go to Google Play Store and download it. No, your phone does NOT need to be rooted. Not anymore. Anyway, granting the app root access might not be a good plan anyway. (It also might be a good idea to turn off your data plan before you turn on the serval mesh. You are probably already painfully familiar (-$$$) with the fact that quite often your service provider’s network can’t tell the difference between when you are actually using it and when you are just on wifi.)

If you have an iPhone, complain to Apple. Apple’s reluctance to let you side-load apps, or even just load apps that aren’t from the apple store, is why it’s not available to you.

The video below is a terrific introduction to the basics of how it works. To find more info, just google Serval Mesh and/or Serval Mesh Extender.  Because this is an evolving technology, watch out for outdated warnings.  AND, because this is an open source evolving technology, there are other “brand names” out there now. If you find a better one than Serval Mesh, please let us all know.  Drop a line in the comment  section, or if you are shy, email me from the contacts page.  OK?

Stay in touch.

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