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Issue 01 Journal
Inform | Communicate | Respond
Issue 01 - Spring 2013

Europe Ponders Effectiveness of Home WiFi for Emergency Communication

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Photo: © daliscar.deviantart.com
Photo: © daliscar.deviantart.com

In the aftermath of a disaster, one of the greatest fears of rescue and relief workers is possibly being cut-off from the “outside” world when conventional communications infrastructure is damaged or otherwise interrupted. While organisations such as Telecoms Sans Frontiers and Global VSAT Forum, explore mobile satellite technologies and other portable telecom and radio solutions, a group of German researchers suggest there may be a far simpler alternative. In a recently published paper, researchers in Germany concluded that in the event of a natural disaster, home wireless WiFi routers that likely already exist in the area of the crisis, could be used for emergency communications.

The Study was published by Kamill Panitzek and colleagues from the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany. Before undertaking the study, the researchers realized that in many European countries, home wireless routers are very common, even in small and medium-sized townships. Panitzek and his team believed that such home WiFi routers could be “piggy-backed” together to form an emergency comm network that could be used by Public Safety Operators in the event that cellphone towers and networks are down or overwhelmed by people caught up in an emergency or natural disaster.

Panitzek and fellow researchers tested their idea in their own small city of Darmstadt, by first determining the density and signal strength of the wireless routers in the area.

Using an Android application to locate wireless networks, and walking through the center of town, in an area of just 0.5 square kilometres (0.19 square miles), they found almost 2000 routers of which over 212 were “public routers,” meaning they were non-encrypted, or required a password for access. In the paper which was published in the International Journal of Mobile Network Design and Innovation, Panitzek said, “this rich density means that an emergency network could piggyback on nearby routers, giving first responders access to the Internet and contact with their headquarters. With a communication range of 30 metres (yards), a mesh network could be easily constructed in urban areas like our hometown.”

UK’s Kingston University's PEACE project team, led by Dr. Christos Politis, (far left). Photo: © Kingston University.
UK’s Kingston University's PEACE project team, led by Dr. Christos Politis, (far left).
Photo: © Kingston University.

The paper went on to suggest that creating this “piggy backed” emergency network could be accomplished easily, and would not impact home users, or invade their privacy, since, as the researchers pointed out, most home routers already have a "guest" mode, or a supplementary channel to allow visitors to use a home's WiFi. In the model suggested by the team, they recommend that home routers incorporate an emergency "switch" that responders can activate to set up a backup network, thus giving them a voice and data link through the Internet.

“The emergency switch would enable an open guest mode that on the one hand, protects people's privacy, and on the other hand, makes the existing communications resources available to first responders,” said Panitzek.

The use of such a switch is a workaround for the problem of not enough “unsecured” or “public” routers available in the stricken area.

Making a Mesh, from a Mess

The concept that Panitzek and his team proposed and proved feasible is not necessarily new to telecom. It employs the idea of nodes and the creation of a “mesh network.” Unlike “traditional networks” that rely on a small number of “wired” access points or so-called “wireless hotspots” to connect users, in a wireless mesh network, the network connection is spread out among dozens or even hundreds of wireless mesh nodes that "talk" to one another, sharing data over a large area. These “mesh nodes” are small radio transmitters that function in much the same way as a wireless router. Nodes use the common WiFi standards known as 802.11a, b and g to communicate wirelessly with users, and, more importantly, with each other, and function exactly like the emergency network proposed by Panitzek’s team.

While wireless mesh networks are an emerging technology, many experts believe they represent bringing the “holy grail” of a totally wireless, seamlessly connected world to reality. Many cities and municipalities are already using mesh network technology to offer their citizens wireless connectivity throughout the entire city. A growing number of metropolitan areas are installing public WiFi hotspots. Mesh networks allow these cities to cost-effectively and easily link all those hotspots together to cover the entire municipality.

A team with UK’s Kingston University developed a similar technology based on the idea of “super-nodes” as part of the PEACE project initiative for better communications among First Responders. That team, led by Dr. Christos Politis, designed an elegant internet-based solution to keep rescuers and Command and Control in touch independently, rather than using central wireless access points or the TETRA police radio system. Deployed as an app, which can be leveraged on a smartphone or other personal mobile device, the patented technology will also allow emergency service workers in the United Kingdom to talk to counterparts across Europe on a secure solution.

“This research looked at how we communicate in a major disaster or emergency,” said Dr. Politis, in a recent Podcast discussing the PEACE Project. “When there's a major terrorist event, earthquake or forest fire, traditional phone lines and radios often can't cope and tend to jam because of the volume of calls and other multimedia traffic, like video. Using our new application, emergency service staff will be able to communicate on their own autonomous network using any available smart device without having to rely on a central communication system.”

The new app allows rescue workers to set up an independent communication system by allowing any one of the mobile devices carried by any rescue worker to act as the super-node – a bit like a mini satellite – letting other mobile devices communicate with each other as in a mesh network.

“Firewalls” Remain

As with all novel approaches to emergency communications in disaster areas, barriers beyond “firewalls” and technological hurdles, remain.

The German researcher’s paper concludes that beyond the density of wireless routers in a given area there are several challenges to overcome before their model could be implemented in the real world. Not the least of which are the privacy concerns, such as, would users agree to have an open channel enabled on their routers.

One idea they suggest to get around that would be to have router manufacturers include a “built-in” emergency mode into their units to be used only during a crisis that users would know was fully secure. But the researchers also agree, that would be unlikely without some kind of legislation mandating such functionality.

Still, their paper and other developments since, like those coming out of the research funded by the PEACE Project, prove that there may be several ways to improve emergency communications by leveraging and integrating with existing consumer technologies.

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