Wi-Fi to the rescue for refugees on the move

Faced with a refugee crisis in the digital age, this startup is bringing an internet lifeline to refugees and migrants in need

For refugees and migrants making the perilous journey across borders, internet access is a lifeline as critical as food, water and shelter. Wi-Fi hotspots offer the means to find safe routes, contact missing family members, and receive money transfers. For those fleeing war, a smartphone is often the only item they carry.

It was this need for connectivity that spurred a group of Croatian engineers, at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, to work together to try to bridge the connectivity gap. The result was Meshpoint, a portable Wi-Fi device that can be launched easily and quickly, and provides free internet for up to 150 users at once.

“We were refugees ourselves 25 years ago [during the Yugoslav war]. When Syrian refugees started entering Europe we understood they would have a variety of needs. We wanted to help, so we went into the field to see what those needs were,” said Valent Turkovic, founder of Crisis Innovation Lab, the startup behind MeshPoint. “Well-known NGOs and international organisations came to us [for internet access]. When even the Red Cross asked for help it was an ‘Aha!’ moment.”

“Making the hotspot easy to use was the biggest issue"Just over 1 million migrants arrived in Europe in 2015, mostly from Syria, Africa and South Asia, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Many travelled through western Balkan countries, navigating complex and changing border restrictions – including Hungary’s closure of its border with Croatia – in attempts to get to other European Union countries, such as Austria and Germany.

The idea for MeshPoint was born when volunteers at Otvorena Mreža (Open Network), an open source movement, hacked a home router and battery and carried them in a rucksack offering free wifi to queues of refugees in Croatia. The homemade device was vital for refugees who had mobile handsets, but no way to connect to existing internet networks; many were desperate to find out the fate of loved ones, said Milijana Micunovic, Crisis Innovation Lab’s information manager.

The startup quickly discovered the device needed to withstand the unique conditions of serving populations in flux, notably lack of a reliable power supply and harsh winter temperatures. But the biggest issue was human error.

“Making the hotspot easy to use was the biggest issue,” said Turkovic. “The first versions worked fine when we were there to configure it. But when we gave the device to NGOs they couldn’t make it work. Humanitarian agencies’ tents moved all the time [alongside the refugees] and they had to disconnect and reconnect in new locations. If one cable wasn’t plugged in correctly it didn’t work.”

MeshPoint is currently at testing stage. The social enterprise has already had interest from nonprofits such as the Red Cross, the UK’s mountain rescue service, and the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) about projects in Jordan and Lebanon – although the latter project has been slow to develop, according to MeshPoint’s founders. The startup is running two pilot programmes in Croatia – including one at an IOM asylum centre for vulnerable refugees.

The devices work as standalone hotspots, or can be ‘meshed’ together to create a wifi web to reach more people. The company works on an open-source model, meaning anyone who needs it can create their own device if necessary. MeshPoint is also working on a pay-as-you-go model where aid organisations rent, rather than buy, the devices for shorter deployments.

Regulation and funding are the biggest hurdles for now. MeshPoint is a social enterprise, but Croatian laws do not yet recognise the label, said Turkovic. The founders are working with companies in the UK to get the business model live.

On the funding side, the device currently costs between €1,000 and €2,000 (without and with an independent power source, respectively), although MeshPoint hopes the price will fall as the company scales. The device has commercial uses – such as in the mining and engineering sectors – that could support the firm while making MeshPoint as affordable as possible for nonprofits, according to Turkovic. The cofounders are on the lookout for some €200,000 ($215,000) in funding to finalise the prototype and scale up.

“NGOs do have solutions that help them [set up internet access],” said Turkovic. “But not in such chaotic conditions as we saw during the refugee crisis.”