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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"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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the landline telephone network was destroyed and the country's sole undersea fiber-optic link was damaged. The cellular phone network did survive, but was temporarily overwhelmed by the volume of communication as people attempted to contact relatives. Internet connectivity was not wiped out by the damage to the cable because most Haitian Internet service providers used satellite links.
Declan Ganley, a former Irish political candidate and chief executive of Rivada Networks, a US-based telecoms defense contractor, said the key is to ensure any effort on the ground is linked with the global telecoms network with sufficient bandwidth.
"Wi-fi certainly has a role to play and anybody deploying it as an NGO is doing God's work, but you need satellite backhaul. When we deployed for [Hurricane] Katrina, one of the first things we had to get in were military-grade satellite links and CDMA equipment. What we do now is more advanced — it's a full cellular broadband network in a stack with satellite broadband," he says.
Haiti Connect used a combination of satellite links and point-to-point networking to connect its wi-fi mesh to working Internet connections.
How it works
If the Camp Roberts simulation is successful, Bopp hopes to store several caches of equipment at airport "forward air transport" hangars in Southeast Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Africa. When disaster strikes, the nearest cache of servers and transmitters will be rushed in.
"A few months ago, we decided to offer dedicated team of equipped volunteers who could be quickly deployed across the globe at short notice," he says.
The network is created with telecoms-grade wi-fi mesh, devices powered by solar and wind, each able to deliver a working Internet connection to aid workers and survivors within a two- to five-mile range, depending on local topography.
Disaster Tech Labs' network management software will recognize any device attempting to connect to its network and assign communication permissions related to the type of device it is, partly to ensure that bandwidth is not wasted by NGO workers coming off-shift and deciding to browse the Web for fun. Any computer can connect, but without an authorized login, it can only use basic connectivity services.
"People we're working with will have logins that will allow them to do specific tasks, but the idea is to make it as non-labor-intensive as possible," says Bopp. Other users, including the public, will have bandwidth assigned to them on the basis of what kind of device they are using and what application is requesting connectivity, in an attempt to automatically keep bandwidth hogs at bay.
"Previously wi-fi network have been all open [to all comers] or are completely closed [to non-registered users]. Both are self-defeating," says Bopp.
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