Mesh Networking: In Disaster Situations, Real Apps Can Do What Zello Cannot Do

Virally widespread misinformation claims that Zello is an app that can be installed on smart phones and tablets as backup in case the cellular network goes down in a natural disaster such as a hurricane, but this is emphatically false. While Zello is a very useful app – I’ve been a fan for years – it depends upon internet connectivity – – obtained either from the cellular network or a WiFi access point and therefore is not the first-choice for disaster communication. To their credit, the makers of Zello have tried to dispel the wrong information circulated by others about their product.

There are, however, real apps that provide “mesh networking” – – that can do precisely what Zello cannot: create peer-to-peer ad hoc networks using Bluetooth or WiFi that are independent of any central server.

Of these, the Serval Project – – is the most ambitious, seeking to form a mesh network as an extension of existing networks. There is an Adroid app – – also linked – – from the project website. It has modules that allow connecting to discontiguous mesh networks, such as the HSMM system – – that is explicitly designed for amateur (ham) radio to be used in natural disasters, which otherwise would not be available to the general public. Serval is funded by the non-profit Shuttleworth Foundation associated with Mark Shuttleworth, the man behind Ubuntu Linux.

Briar – – is another open source approach with a beta app available for Android – – that can connect with other users either at short range via Bluetooth or WiFi or at long range over the internet via Tor. The goal is to provide highly robust and secure communication for journalists and activists under conditions where internet access might be selectively shut down, but this also has considerable value in natural disasters.

FireChat – – is a similar product and probably the most widely used, but it is closed source and as a result I cannot unreservedly recommend it. While it has found value in situations such as street protests in the Third World, it was not originally designed with that goal by its maker Open Garden – – and basic features such as encryption had to be retrofitted.

Ultimately, all of these mesh networking apps have the serious disadvantage that their most useful peer-to-peer feature only works with other users of the same app, so the best course of action for any particular user is to install all three. None of these apps have ever found success in the United States where cellular connectivity is far more reliable than in much of the rest of the world, but a severe natural disaster can easily change that.

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