An Ireland-based aid agency is working with the US Navy in a disaster simulation at Camp Roberts, Calif., this week to test a local communications system in an effort to improve telecommunications in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters.
When disaster strikes, whether in Indonesia, Haiti, or Japan, the aftermath is much the same: chaotic. As the government, various charities, and family members struggle amid downed telephone lines to find and communicate with missing persons, communications are notoriously slow-going and disparate.
If successful, the new system will allow NGOs, charities, other relief organizations, as well as survivors and relatives, to share communications. It would significantly reduce the chaos surrounding the aftermath of a disaster, obviating the need for separate groups to set up multiple private networks and drastically cut the time it takes to rescue and connect disaster victims.
Disaster Tech Labs, a charitable organization founded by Ireland-based Dutchman Evert Bopp, is behind the project. Mr. Bopp, an IT businessman, says he got the inspiration from watching what happened during the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami.
He says the project finally crystalized when he got involved in the relief effort after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. After he developed ad hoc networks on the ground in Haiti, under the name Haiti Connect, Bopp decided to attempt to codify the setup — and to take it global.
"When I went to Haiti I thought, 'I'll do this for six months, it's my contribution to society, and that'll be the extent of my work.' Two and a half years later, I'm still working at it and can't see the end," he says. "Do I want to chase big bucks — I've done that for most of my life — or do I want to make a contribution to the world?"
He made a call for donations, and by February 2010 had received $8,600 in cash donations to cover expenses, plus $200,000 of telecoms equipment from California-based hardware manufacturer Aruba Networks.
Bopp says the Haiti experience taught him that communications can be easily improved in any future natural disaster simply by recognizing what kind of devices people have and rapidly building ad hoc networks that support them. His new plan, being tested at Camp Roberts, is to deploy within days of a disaster.
Aruba Networks has donated a further $50,000 in equipment, he says.
"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."
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."
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.