Off-the-grid communication reassures loved ones during war [Q&A]

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In Syria, after a bomb goes off, phone lines go down for at least 30 minutes leaving panicked families without a means to check on their loved ones.

Those 30 minutes passed by like a lifetime, said Syrian Abdul Rahman Alashraf, who now lives in Germany.

Alashraf, a software engineer, found it frustrating that families in Syria weren’t able to communicate over the phone when they may needed it most, either to call for help or share information.

His disappointment with the lagging telecom system drove him to develop Freecom, software to facilitate off-the-grid communication during war and natural disasters.

The program uses mesh networking to connect smartphones to each other and processes the information through a peer-to-peer pipeline. This means that smartphones that are geographically close to each other can take the role of phone towers and routers.

Alashraf’s project was among the 13 projects that won the 2016 European Youth Award, which took place in December.

The entrepreneur has succeeded in building a prototype and is still working on developing the final version. His work resembles international companies such as Fire Chat and Serval Mesh, which also provide alternative communication methods.

Abdul Rahman Alashraf at the European Youth Award. (Image via Alashraf)

Wamda: How does Freecom work?

Abdul Rahman Alashraf: The main concept behind the technology is about replacing phone towers and routers with smartphones that are present at a geographic proximity. So instead of connecting the sender’s message to the tower, the aim is to find the closest smartphone, no further than two buildings apart, and send the message through it, and across a chain of other smartphones until it eventually reaches the intended receiver. The messages are transferred through various means including radio waves, bluetooth and ultrasound.

If the last phone that received the message is very far from the intended receiver, then the message can be delivered as soon as one of the carrier phones reaches a connection.

While the prototype only allows the transfer of text messages, the final version will include other forms of media including, voice and video.

Wamda: What about the security risk and privacy concerns of messages being exposed during the transfer?

Alashraf: Before leaving the sender’s phone, the messages become encrypted. While decrypting is possible since I have yet to develop my own encryption software, it is as dangerous as any other application that uses the same technique, like Whatsapp for example.

Wamda: How will Freecom be used?

Alashraf: Currently, Freecom is an application. However, I am trying to find alternatives because apps are very restrictive. Rather than forcing those who want to use the service to download the app, I would rather embed the feature in all smartphones.

I am hoping to enlist Freecom as a 5G application, especially that fluid connectivity is one of the new generation of this technologies’ main pillars for 2020.

At the same time, embedding Freecom in smartphones forces telecommunication companies to accept the software, even if it may negatively affects their revenues.

Wamda: How do you plan to sustain your company?

Alashraf: Freecom is a humanitarian project - I don’t want to profit from it. I am looking to partner with humanitarian organizations interested in the service I provide. On the other hand, I am hoping to develop separate, but smaller profitable projects in the near future to help sustain Freecom.

Feature image via Pexels.

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