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Posted by on Oct 20, 2016 in Information Management, Mobile Technologies, What's new | 0 comments

Improving networks management in MDC: Pocket Routers

Improving networks management in MDC: Pocket Routers

Over the last few years, a new type of hardware has been developed and can increasingly be seen as a viable option for network management in MDC: the pocket routers (PR).

While the marketing departments are still working on newer, more inspiring names for these devices (see names below), we’ve decided to explore what role these devices could play in Mobile Data Collection (MDC) operations.

First we will offer our thoughts on where we are standing on network access for MDC, then we’ll summarize our observations on 3 such devices.

I.  Networks in MDC: mains options

When it comes to networks in MDC, 3 options are available: the conventional (plug-in) routers, the PR and the smartphones themselves.

router

Conventional routers are generally meant to work with a wired or satellite internet connection and typically do not allow the use of SIM cards & data plans through local providers – a problem, since in remote locations SIM cards may be the only viable access to internet. They do however provide great capabilities for network management, in cases where many devices with different access rights to the network need to be managed, or if a fix IP address is required (because you need a device or program to be available at a given address on the network). Depending on the models, they also tend to have the greater capacities in terms of range and bandwidth capacities.

androidphone

Android phones also provide a path to connection – it is possible to generate a hotspot through most Android phone, but their capacities are limited (bandwidth & network management options). They are convenient in remote locations because the technical know-how to setup a data plan on a phone is likely to be available from the sellers. They don’t require constant power supply – only a charged battery. Phones are required for MDC, therefore they offer in a sense a “free” option for network access. It is also possible to have each phone equipped with its own SIM card and data plan. However if the objective is to use Nafundi’s virtual machine (VM) to run an ODK Aggregate server locally (without internet access), then the phones are an inconvenient way to do this – because the IP address of the server on the network will change.

dlink

From a MDC perspective, the fact that pocket routers are working off a battery that can be recharged as needed is a great advantage, in places where power outages can last days. Many also double as an extra charge for phones (if plugged through USB) and have additional features not available with plug-in routers. Most (but not all) readily accept SIM cards and most models seem to have at least some degree of capacities with regards to network management – often not as extensive as plug-ins, but much greater than smartphones. Overall, they offer a way to fill a gap between convention routers and the smartphones. However the features offered aren’t uniformed and must be verified on a model per model basis to avoid surprises. They are also costlier than conventional routers – typically 2-3 times the price, although it is worth mentioning that simple plug-in routers are very cheap these days (15-20 euros).

 

Option

Pros

Cons

Conventional routers

  • Great network management capacities
  • Very easy to use
  • Cheap
  • High capacities (range & bandwidth)
  • Need constant power supply
  • Generally do not accept SIM cards

Android phones

  • Already part of the gear for MDC
  • Some power autonomy
  • Accept SIM cards
  • Widely used – help to establish connection is easier to find
  • Few network management options
  • Poor capacities (bandwidth/range)
  • Not as easy to use

Pocket routers

  • Power autonomy
  • Accepts both SIM cards and other network providers
  • Acceptable network management options
  • Can double as a portable range extender
  • More expensive
  • Features and capacities vary greatly

Use case for PR in MDC

Based on the above, a few factors could motivate the use of PR instead of conventional routers for MDC operations:

  • The possibility to benefit, from a single device, of advantages that are usually available in either a conventional router or a smartphone, but not simultaneously in both.
  • Avoiding the drawbacks of each of those solutions
  • The potential to have these advanced features available even in low technical skills environments and remote locations

Key points for MDC

Initially, PR have not necessarily been designed with MDC in mind – rather the increasing number of travelers who want a greater capacity to connect their  multiple devices – laptop(s), smartphone(s) & such and want to be able to do more than what a single smartphone’s hotspot may offer. Therefore not all features of a PR are useful from an MDC perspective –although you would still have to pay for it. It is therefore worth ruling out options that greatly emphasize unnecessary elements such as USB/file sharing or huge transfer rates/rates (basic capacities will often be enough) and focus on the essentials:

Networking

  • Creation of a local area network (useful if you are synching phones offline through Nafundi’s VM for example or if you use Airdroid)
  •  Fixing of the IP addresses of clients (again if using the VM)
  •  Ability to use 3G/4G SIM cards for internet access
  •  Ability to use regular internet providers (ethernet cable, satellite)

Power management

  • Allows the use of external charges to power the router (to extend their battery life)
  • Can be used as external charges for phones
  • Battery life: while extensive testing in field conditions is difficult to carry out, the rated mAh rating gives a good indication of the power storage capacity of the battery.

Configuration/ease of use

  • For the final user, basic use should not require access to any menus. It must be easy to use, such as menu selection with a button or just starting the router.

II.  Pocket Router Models

We have tested 3 models: TP-LINK MR3040, Netgear PR2000, D-Link DIR510. We were mostly interested in their ability to run ODK Aggregate on a virtual machine (VM, produced by Nafundi). To our regret, we have not found an ideal candidate.

TP-LINK MR3040

tplink

This model was in theory the best option, however we have observed problems in testing – this may be due to firmware and perhaps can be improved in the future. On the plus side, it covers the main bases: it accepts SIM cards for network access, it’s autonomy can be extended with external charged (plugged through its mini-USB socket). We were also able to set a fix IP address so that the virtual machine could be run and it sells at an acceptable price point.

However… it happened that the router would not always broadcast a network to connect to upon being turned on, regardless of how long we waited (or how many times we tried to turn it on/off). The only way to get out of this dead end, it seemed, was to reset the router. Doing so means that any configuration (such as fixing the IP address) would be lost and need to be done once more. Obvious not a viable option in terms of ease of use since not all users have those capacities.

Netgear PR2000

netgear

An interesting candidate, other than its absence of slot to accept SIM cards which as we have explained above is a key feature for MDC. It will also not accept external charges to extend its battery life. However it was possible to fix the IP address and it is by far the best offering in terms of price (half that of the TP-LINK model).

D-Link DIR510

dlink

This model was that it seemed to have everything needed for MDC. However, it would not assign a fix IP address to a virtual device (e.g., to the Aggregate server running on a computer), but only to the computer itself (a physical device). Therefore it isn’t really possible to use it as a local server.

 TP-LINK TL-MR3040

Netgear trek N300 PR2000

D-Link Wi-Fi AC750

Price (Amazone.fr, June 2016)

50€

25€

78€

Pros

  • Most important MDC features available
  • Can work with accupak & external charges
  • Accepts 3G/4G through USB modem
  • Best price
  • Switch on the side to select mode of operation is more user-friendly
   Greater autonomy

Cons

  • Some cases noted where the router had to be reset (erases any configuration saved)
  • Can’t be used with accupak/external charges
  • Setting fix IP address is possible but less convenient than other models
  • Can’t use of 3G/4G sim cards through USB modem
 More expensive than other options

Battery

2000 mAh

2000 mAh

4000 mAh

 Conclusion

In the end, we haven’t found our perfect candidate yet for a pocket router we can recommend for most field conditions. However this device should be kept in mind for remote deployments, especially if you do not need the more advanced network management options. We can also hope that the technology (and software in it) will mature.

This blog post is an extract from a wider document produced on behalf of UNHCR. You can find the entire document here: Benchmark – Pocket Routers 2016

 

Logos used in this post designed by Freepik from Flaticon and from Angbay – Freepik.com

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A propos de l'auteur :

Francis Vachon

With a background physics engineering, Francis is working as information management at CartONG... when he's not managing reforestation teams in Québec!