In a disaster, cell phone networks can be one of the first things to go, leaving survivors unable to text for help or call to check on friends and family. Last fall, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with 145-mile-per-hour winds that took out electricity and cell phone towers, it took weeks to restore service in some areas. But cell phone networks don’t have to be confined to giant towers: The latest mobile network, from Vodafone Foundation, can fit in a backpack.
A previous mobile network from Vodafone designed for disasters, the Instant Network, actually did make it to the Philippines, helping people send 1.4 million text messages and make hundreds of thousands of calls over a month. But while it was critically helpful, it was also heavy—over 200 pounds—and difficult to lug around, especially to more remote areas. Designers shrank the new machine down to just 24 pounds.
"Portability is essential in a disaster situation," says Oisin Walton, who manages the Instant Network program at Vodafone Foundation. The new design can be taken on commercial flights, and while it might be heavier than a typical backpack, it’s still easy for an aid worker to carry.
"A smaller version is also simpler and quicker to set up—the Instant Network Mini can be set up by one person in just 10 minutes, so no technical expertise is required," Walton adds.
The network can’t reach very far, with a coverage area that’s only a 328-foot radius. But it’s strong enough for relief workers in a temporary office to send thousands of text messages, and make five simultaneous calls. For people who rely on their phone for banking, the device can also provide access to money.
If electricity is out in the area—a likely scenario—the device can be charged with solar power or a car cigarette lighter.
For now, the device is only designed for disaster relief, but it’s easy to wonder if this might also become the latest survivalist accessory, or a tool for those who live in remote areas that don't get cell coverage any of the time. Since the mobile network is new, and emergencies are the main target, Vodafone says it's just starting to consider commercial possibilities.