Serval Project - Communications Anywhere, Anytime

Congratulations! This Entry has been selected as a finalist.

Serval Project - Communications Anywhere, Anytime

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
Project Stage:
$250,000 - $500,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Serval lets cell phones work without infrastructure, without government or during disaster - using your existing phone number

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Telecommunications, especially mobile telecommunications, depends on big infrastructure, big enterprise and functioning government. Disrupt any of these and you endanger the provision of mobile communications to people. This can be due to disaster, war, monopoly, remote location or various other reasons. Also, big infrastructure carries a big price tag, which prices telecommunications out of reach of billions. We would suggest that the often quoted statistic that 6 billion of the worlds 7 billion have a cell phone hides the fact that perhaps half of those cannot afford to make regular use of that resource due to the cost of service and/or limitations of coverage. Thus we define our target audience broadly as the approximately half of the world's population who live in an economy of scarcity of mobile communications, for whatever reason.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We realised that cell phones have the fundamental capability to communicate directly and form a simple self-organising mesh network that is simple to use and basically behaves like a regular cellular network from an end user's perspective. So we have created open-source software that makes this a reality, using the WiFi radio in cell phones to create a P2P telephony and data service that behaves just like a regular cellular network, including using existing phone numbers -- but with absolutely no reliance on external infrastructure or authority. We have already released a developer prototype on the Android Market and are planning to port to iOS and Symbian in the near future and as we mature the software, promote it with handset vendors and carriers so that it comes pre-installed on new handsets. We have also created technology whereby one phone with our software can become a wifi hotspot and offer the software for download to other compatible phones that don't yet have the software installed. This allows for retro installation even DURING a disaster, and for communities to spread the software themselves, without requiring even a single internet connection. The software also has the means to make opportunistic use of internet connectivity to connect the local mesh telephony network to the outside world.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Imagine an earthquake strikes, similar to that that recently struck Christchurch New Zealand or Haiti. Much of the mobile and fixed communications infrastructure is out. Ordinary cell phones become useless. However, some people in the area has the Serval mesh installed. These people use it to contact nearby family and friends and to coordinate their actions and support of those around them. People around them realise that these people's phones still work and ask questions. Those with the software say that their phone works because of special software, and ask if the enquirer would like it on their phone, too, because it is free. Soon more people have the software installed and are not only able to join the network, but add to its coverage. By an iterative process soon much of the affected population have local mobile telephony service again. Some users of the software are also aware that it offers a twitter-like function that lets you tweet messages with GPS coordinates, perhaps to indicate where roads or other infrastructure is damaged, or where shelter and food may be found. News spreads and soon many are using this capability to coordinate their actions, help maintain law and order, and become part of the recovery process much sooner. Some phones near the edge of the disaster can see cell towers that are still operational. The Serval software on their phones realises this, and links the mesh to the outside world. Consider also people living in poverty, where everyday life can be viewed as a disaster zone.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

No other party has created a system that is entirely independent of infrastructure, uses off the shelf cell phones, and existing phone numbers to create an feasible mesh telephony platform. Skype requires internet access. Village Telco provides only fixed-line services. Neither allows the use of existing phone numbers.
About You
Serval Project
About You
About Your Organization
Organization Name

Serval Project

Organization Country
Country where this project is creating social impact

, SA

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

The information you provide here will be used to fill in any parts of your profile that have been left blank, such as interests, organization information, and website. No contact information will be made public. Please uncheck here if you do not want this to happen..

Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Start-Up (a pilot that has just begun operating)

How long have you been in operation?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Social Impact
FOUNDING STORY: We want to hear about your “Aha!” moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution’s potential to change the world.

I remember hearing on the radio about the Haiti earthquake and how it disrupted communications in that country, and a coping mechanism thinking to myself that they would just fly new kit in. The next thing the radio said was that their airport was ruined. So I said to myself that they could drive kit by road. The next thing the radio said was that their roads were largely destroyed. So I said to myself that they could bring kit in by boat. And, you guessed it, the next thing the radio said was that their harbor was ruined. Stripped of all excuses I realised that Haiti faced a real problem, and that something had to be done. My expertise is in communications and networks so I focussed on that area, and soon came to the realisation that we needed to enable the latent capability of cell phones to form independent, self-organising telephony networks without depending on infrastructure, so that communications could not be so easily impaired, to the great detriment of society.

Specify both the depth and scale of your solution’s social impact to date

We have created working prototype software and proven that it has the potential to address this solution. We are yet to deploy it to actually meet the needs for which it was envisaged.

What is your projected impact within the next 1-5 years? Is your idea replicable? If so, how?

As we mature the software over the coming year we also intend to start more serious trials with other organisations and communities to help them meet their own communications needs. As our solution is software which can run on off-the-shelf phones, is available via the Android Market and includes the means of self-replication when deprived of infrastructure, we anticipate that it will begin to spread widely.

Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and mark growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact

To mature our software from technology demonstrator to public ALPHA release

Six-Month Tasks
Task 1

Get our software to production quality and complete outstanding features

Task 2

Cajole Android/Google to add an ad-hoc API to Android so that our software doesn't need root access

Task 3

Conduct trials to identify and rectify weak points

Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone

General public release of Serval mesh software

12-Month Tasks
Task 1

Lots of bug fixing.

Task 2

Porting to iOS and Symbian

Task 3

Keep working with partners and governments to promote our technology and drive up-take

How many people have been impacted by your project?

Fewer than 100

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

Explain how your company, program, service or product is structured

Hybrid model

What barriers have hindered the success of your project to date? How do you plan to overcome these and other challenges as you grow your solution?

- getting it finished! We have recently secured some great grants that will help us do just that.
- Mesh networking currently requires "root" or "Administrator" access on most phone platforms. We have some cunning plans for root-less overlay mesh networking which we are in the process of building out right now.

How do you see the information-technology and media sectors shifting over the next decade? How will your solution adapt to and/or drive that changing environment?

IT will continue to become more and more vital to modern life. Our solution will help to enable this, especially for the poorest, most vulnerable, and those living away from cities.

Failure is not always an option. If your solution fails to gain traction in the next two years, what other applications of the idea could you explore?

We are already exploring alternative applications of our technology, including surveillance (think cheap camera phones forming an ad-hoc video capture mesh), and some that we are already getting paid a little to work on, but if I tell you, I'd have to kill you as we are under non-disclosure.

Expand on your selections, explaining how you will sustain funding

We will continue to grow our success in securing philanthropic funding (about US$900k in the last 12 months), and also develop the independent spin-off products and services that our technology enables to derive an independent commercial revenue stream, without compromising our commitment to enabling open communications.

Tell us about your partnerships

We have informal partnerships with technology peers such as Village Telco, and potential users of our technology, such as New Zealand Red Cross, handset manufacturers and governmental agencies in Australia.

What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section?

Myself as founder and software developer.
Romana Challans as Co-founder and UI/UX developer.
Jennifer Hampton as Project Manager.
Jeremy Lakeman as software developer.
Corey Wallas as mapping guru and software developer.
11 undergraduate, exchange and post-graduate students studying at Flinders University.

Changemakers is a collaborative and supportive space. Please specify any community resources you would need to grow and sustain your initiative. Select all that apply

Investment, Human resources or talent, Marketing or media, Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Pro-bono help (legal, financial, etc.), Mentorship.

Specify any resources you might offer to support other initiatives. Select all that apply

Research or information, Collaboration or networking, Innovation or ideas.

Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren’t specified within the list

We are actively making our technology available to any initiatives that can make use of it as they carry out their core business. This will accelerate as we mature out software and increase its utility.

Define your company, program, service or product in 1-2 short sentences

Communications any where, any time, without infrastructure, enterprise or government. Because communications is a human right.


Alyssa Feldmann's picture


Congratulations on being a finalist for the Citizen Media competition! We think that your Growth Tracker clearly shows that you have goals for scaling and growing. We're interested in learning about how you will reach and complete these milestones. How can Changemakers help you explain to potential investors or volunteers on what you need to get there? Would tying your goals to your offers and needs be useful?

All the best,
Alyssa Feldmann and Jessi Wolz

Paul this sounds amazing! Where can i go to learn more?