Checklist for disaster first-responders: food, blankets – and wi-fi
An Irish-based aid agency has developed a wi-fi system for use immediately after a natural disaster, when communications can be near-impossible. The US Navy is testing it this week.
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"If the UN or Red Cross deploys to a disaster area, they bring their own radio equipment,” he says. [But] wi-fi devices are so ubiquitous, why not built a network using it?" he says. "The only communications still up-and-running after Hurricane Katrina was the recently installed metropolitan wi-fi network."Skip to next paragraph
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Others working on the ground after catastrophes welcome the idea.
Christian Aid was one of the many nongovernmental organizations that arrived on the scene of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Initially, communications between London and the scene were close to nonexistent, he says.
"Telephone lines were down, and we couldn't use mobiles to make communication. I was taking calls throughout the night from journalists asking what Christian Aid was seeing, and for quite a while I wasn't able to answer the question.
"We did have [satellite] phones but they have limitations. Anything that can be thrown into the mix to offer another avenue for communications would be extremely valuable. We need to check on the safety of staff, obviously, but we also need to alert people to the scale of the disaster as accurately as possible," he says.
Just one tool
Not everyone is sure the idea is a good one, even if it is well-meant.
John Ronan, emergency communications coordinator for the Irish Radio Transmitters' Society, expressed doubts about the use of wi-fi as a technology.
"If it's for the NGOs on the ground, that's OK, [but] any scenario is going to have different requirements. In Haiti they needed food and water," he says.
Ronan said VHF radio, shortwave, and wi-fi are tools in a communications toolbox, and that no single tool fits all scenarios. Topography is also an issue: High-powered wi-fi signals can travel far over flat terrain, but obstacles such as hills, mountains, and buildings can significantly reduce this distance.
Alan Burkitt-Gray, editor of the London-based industry publication Global Telecoms magazine, agreed: "A wi-fi network is only part of what you need, you also need a decent connection to the global Internet."
He points out that the likelihood of survival — and rapid repair — of any telecoms network in inextricably linked to a country's level of industrial development.
"After the  Japan earthquake and tsunami, [telecom company] NTT literally had its telephone exchanges, which were wrecked, back up and running within a month. In a place like Haiti they don't have the resources."