Mobile phone networks are a key means of communication when humanitarian efforts need to be coordinated at times of disaster. If infrastructure has been damaged, however, using the existing mobile networks may not be an option. The Vodafone Foundation's Instant Network Mini is a highly portable mobile network in a backpack that can be deployed in just 10 minutes.

The Instant Network Mini was designed to cater for both the voice and SMS communications of small humanitarian field offices in areas that have been hit by disasters and may be very inaccessible. The device weighs just 11 kg (24.3 lb) and is small enough to be taken as hand luggage on commercial flights.

The Vodafone Foundation told Gizmag that the Instant Network Mini works by linking a 2G GSM base station to the host mobile network via a portable satellite unit. "Once the Mini is linked to the host mobile network, it is controlled similarly to existing base stations on the 2G network," a spokesperson explained. "The satellite and base station units are powered by an internal battery, but can also be powered via mains, or generator, electricity, 12 V from a car lighter or by using the included solar panel."

According to the Foundation, the Instant Network Mini can be set up without the need for technical know-how. It is first configured to run with the host mobile network, which is typically done before the unit is deployed to the field. Once in the field, it is switched on by the operator and connected to the satellite antenna via a simple process, after which a Picocell mobile network base station is plugged into the backpack's power supply. Assuming everything has gone to plan, the network then becomes live in a further 2-3 minutes.

Once up and running, the Instant Network Mini provides a secure mobile network with a radius of 100 m (328 ft). A total of 5 calls can be hosted on the network at the same time and it provides a means of sending out text messages containing important information to thousands people.

Gizmag also asked the Vodafone Foundation about the extent to which it works with other providers at such times of disaster. "Collaboration with partner providers is essential for the Vodafone Foundation to provide support in all countries in times of humanitarian need, including, when required by those countries, areas in which Vodafone does not operate," said the spokesperson. "We have most recently collaborated with SMART in the Philippines to provide support after Typhoon Haiyan."

On that occasion, the Instant Network Mini's bigger brother was deployed. The original Instant Network was first developed by Vodafone, Huawei and Telecoms sans Frontieres and was launched in 2011. At 100 kg (220 lb), it has to be transported in four suitcases, but it provides a larger operating radius of up to 5 km (3 miles). According to the Vodafone Foundation, its use in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan facilitated 1.4 million text messages and 443,288 calls in 29 days.

The video below shows the Instant Network being used in the Philippines.

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