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How to Keep Communicating When Cell Service Fails

portableThe recent tragic events of the North Bay fires in California and Hurricane Maria's devastation in Puerto Rico highlight issues that arise when cell towers go down. In the aftermath of these disasters, we heard many stories about the difficulties of finding people in the affected areas.

North Bay fire reports initially placed the number of missing people at more than 1,000. With 77 cell towers out of commission, people didn't have the ability to reach out for help or just to say they were safe. For several days, friends and loved ones experienced tremendous anxiety as they tried reaching their parents, siblings, children, and others. Cell service has since been restored, and fortunately most of the missing people were eventually accounted for and safe.

In Puerto Rico, much of the island is still without electricity and cell service, with almost half of cell sites still out of service, according to Federal Communications Commission status reports from this week.

This brings up the question: When cell service isn't available, can you still communicate using your smartphone? In fact, you can, provided your smartphone has power and you've installed an app that allows limited range communications without cell service or a Wi-Fi connection.

These apps use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi signals to communicate with other smartphones enabled with the app. Instead of communicating to a specific cell tower, each smartphone acts as a local network node. Your phone communicates to a nearby smartphone enabled with the app, which in turn communicates to another smartphone enabled with the app, and so on. This peer-to-peer mesh network allows smartphone users to communicate without cell towers. The more smartphones with this app, the larger the mesh network.

Some of the more popular apps of this type include:

  • FireChat -- since making its debut in 2014, this free messaging app has become a popular means of communicating when government entities restrict or shut down Internet use during protests, such as been the case in in Iraq, Hong Kong, and Ecuador. Messages are encrypted to ensure privacy.
  • Serval App and Serval Mesh -- supported by a social change organization called the Shuttleworth Foundation, the Serval Mesh project aims to allow communications in communities that aren't served by a mobile phone operator. Based in Australia, where 75% of the land mass lacks a wireless provider, Serval Mesh provides a way to call and text others in the immediate vicinity. The New Zealand Red Cross has been working with Serval Mesh for communications assistance during disasters.
  • Signal Offline Messenger uses Wi-Fi signals to communicate directly to other smartphones located within 200 feet. You can send one-to-one or group messages. Think of this as a modern-day form of a CB radio. The app stores messages and chats in a database and for review at a later date.

Among many similar apps are Near Peer, Vojer, goTenna, and Bridgefy (and, on the lighter side, there's even ZombieChat, a "post-apocalyptic communications tool for when zombies take over the planet."

Of course, these apps have some mundane, nonemergency uses. On a cruise ship, for example, you could use one of these apps rather than incurring the high cost of onboard access to communicate with members of your party who are scattered around the ship. The same type of use case applies while traveling internationally and looking to avoid roaming charges. Your party can split up while exploring the Louvre, but still keep in touch. These apps can also come in handy when attending a concert. While Wi-Fi or cell service may be available in the venue, the networks can become overloaded, so having another means of communications can be helpful.

As useful as these smartphone apps may be, when a potential disaster is impending -- such as in the case of a hurricane or typhoon, consider renting a satellite phone. Given a few days advance warning, you should be able to rent a satellite phone for about $50/week, excluding usage, postage/handling, and other fees.

A satellite phone can be a godsend for hikers venturing into wilderness areas. With spotty or no cell service, having a satellite phone may be a true lifesaver. We often hear about a search for a missing person in some remote area. What we never hear are success stories involving a hiker using a satellite phone to summon help. Spending $50/week can provide a great amount of peace of mind.

While we may never experience a Zombie Apocalypse, we may find ourselves traveling overseas, taking a cruise, or dealing with a disaster -- and these apps are worth having on hand for any such situation. Mesh networking apps are just another example of innovative thinking using smartphone technologies.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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