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Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: Vodafone NZ engineers unveil "mobile network in a backpack"

Two Vodafone New Zealand engineers who deployed an Instant Network in the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan applaud the possibilities of the Vodafone Foundation “mini” mobile network in a backpack.

Vodafone Foundation launched the Instant Network Mini at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week – an 11kg mobile network in a backpack that can be deployed in just ten minutes to connect people in disaster situations.

The robust backpack can be taken as hand luggage on commercial flights and can be deployed by non-technical staff.  It provides up to five concurrent calls within a radius of 100 metres, and enables text messages to be sent to thousands of people to provide crucial information following a disaster.

The “network in a backpack” compliments the original Vodafone Foundation Instant Network, a portable network in four suitcases weighing 100kg. This equipment, which offers a much larger operating radius of up to 5km, was deployed in the Philippines within 24 hours of Typhoon Haiyan hitting in November 2013. The deployment enabled 1.4 million text messages and 443,288 calls in 29 days.

Vodafone NZ engineers Adrian Bullock and Robert MacLennan travelled to the Philippines to set up the original Instant Network equipment in Palo, one of the hardest hit regions of the Philippines – and are two of only 60 people worldwide trained to do this sort of work.

Adrian believes the Instant Network Mini will be a great addition to the existing gear.

“Having a backpack-sized option will give us alternatives when responding to emerging challenges.   Just having the option to send an advance party while the rest of the team organises the logistics of transporting the full kit to a disaster zone, could mean re-establishing vital communications hours – even days – faster,” he says.

Vodafone Foundation Instant Network Mini was developed with Vodafone Spain and the Vodafone Foundation’s partners Huawei and Telecoms Sans Frontières.  It provides a secure 2G GSM network. The GSM base transceiver station connects to a host network over a satellite connection. The equipment is particularly suited to providing a GSM mobile network in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  It has been designed to provide both voice and SMS communications to a small humanitarian field office in disaster areas.

Andrew Dunnett, Director of the Vodafone Group Foundation, said: “The Vodafone Foundation Instant Network has enabled thousands of people to reconnect with their loved ones. Vodafone Foundation Instant Network Mini is simple and quick to deploy and will be particularly valuable to those humanitarian workers without any other means of communication.”

Comments and questions

I know the backpack was developed for disaster situations, and more power to Vodafone NZ for that; top work.

But wouldn't it also be cool if Voda hired students to wear these backpacks around NZ metro areas at peak times, or mill around big events wearing them.

All the networks run temporary cellsites (cellsites on light trucks in the US, or COLTs, while we call them cellsites on wheels: COWs) but the real problem with them is backhaul. Typically they need to be plugged in to a fixed line.

These are a great idea but woe betide the tinfoil hat brigade hear about them...

A second student/casul worker would follow the first, wearing a microwave transmitter backpack for wireless backhaul.

With some weight training, the same person could carry both packs.

Obviously the tinfoil hat brigade would object to their presence - but they're mobile; they could run.

We've got a solution that can operate standalone including off battery power in a manpack configuration. In a disaster scenario, users could be on the system and communication with each other without the need for backhaul. A great tool for post-disaster communications, or to potentially be used to find people who are in distress.

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