Communications networks are an essential tool when it comes to providing disaster relief after earthquakes and hurricanes, or when responding to man-made ones such as dealing with the floods of refugees from war-torn Syria and Iraq. However, local communication networks are often disabled by the disaster.
What is needed is a way to provide temporary communications networks that can be rapidly deployed. Disaster Tech Lab (DTL), a charity registered in Ireland, was set up by founder and CEO Evert Bopp, to provide exactly that.
Explaining Disaster Tech Lab’s genesis, Bopp, who has a background specialising in Wi-Fi, says it was the 2004 South East Asian Tsunami that got him thinking. ‘There was a dire lack of communications, which meant there was poor co-ordination between the various relief organisations.’
Bopp was implementing point-to-point (PTP) outdoor Wi-Fi systems at the time and thought that Wi-Fi networks could be set up quickly in field hospitals and refugee camps. ‘I did some theoretical testing of a solution, but I didn’t do anything about putting it into action just then,’ he says.
Then Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake in 2010. ‘It was the same chaos again,’ recalls Bopp. This time he decided he had to do something. He gathered together some volunteers and put together a list of equipment and sent it off to various vendors in the hope they would donate at least some of it. Much to his delight, Aruba Networks sent him everything on his wish list – enough equipment to fill half a container, in fact.
‘We built some Wi-Fi PTP links in field hospitals, in local community centres and in some refugee camps, so people could talk to each other, and we even enabled video conferencing with US hospitals,’ says Bopp.
His plan was to do that for six months and then go back to the day job. But fate decided otherwise. Despite the initial disaster response period being over, Haiti was still a mess. DTL expanded the Wi-Fi to schools and radio stations, which play a big social role in Haiti.
Rapid response team
Things carried on until 2012 with an informal board running DTL, when Bopp decided to commit to DTL and set up a rapid-response team with portable communications equipment, which could be deployed very quickly anywhere in the world.
‘We were working on a world development plan to achieve this goal, when half way through the process we got a call from a small NGO following Hurricane Sandy in the US. It was providing help on the Rockaway Peninsula on Long Island in New York. Despite being only 45 minutes from downtime Manhattan it had no communications at all.
‘We sent in a small team of two within 24 hours, and we had a network up in 12 hours, with satellite backhaul and adding local networks when they came back on line,’ says Bopp. ‘Technically, it was a standard PTP hub and spoke local Wi-Fi hotspot arrangement with some solar power or generators.’
Local fire departments, the police and pretty much everyone else came knocking to use the Wi-Fi network. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency was so impressed with what Disaster Tech Lab had achieved that the charity got invited to the White House.
DTL now offers a range of services including Wi-Fi networks, which can be configured for private (encrypted), public access or a mix of both, providing wireless internet access to desktops, laptops, smartphones, tablets or more.
It can provide VoIP services and public internet facilities (these can take the form of internet cafés for public use with laptops, iPads, printers and scanner/copiers). Other solutions include general IT services (desktop & laptops support, as well as network & sys-admin services); and VPN services if a secure connection is required.
DTL has always strived to be fully self-contained, and in the early years it used standard diesel generators for power, but it is now relying more on solar energy using solar arrays with foldable panels capable of powering a 10-person command centre. ‘We are using Goal Zero batteries and solar panels now,’ says Bopp
The charity started out using satellite for backhaul, but as Bopp points out, you have to be in the right region and it is very expensive and hard to get. ‘We’ve discovered over the past year and half that cellular data is a viable alternative for backhaul.’
DTL has been to the Philippines three times following various typhoons. ‘We often have to set up communications in very remote areas after the cellular towers have been knocked out,’ observes Bopp.
‘In one village we built a Wi-Fi network that covered a village of 400 people, plus school and mini hospital serving a wider area. We used a satellite dish for one form of backhaul and then built a lattice tower with a PTP link to a cellular tower some miles away for another,’ he says.
Providing internet services meant schools got access to a wealth of information, and the children could interact with other schools. In serious health cases, if a second opinion is needed or an expert is required, the hospital can fire up a Skype connection and make a video call to get advice.
DTL has also provided deployments in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam in 2014; in Liberia as part of the Ebola response; Boulder, Colorado after flooding; Moore, Oklahoma after a tornado; and in Nepal following the earthquake.
Greek refugee crisis
However, the charity’s most recent deployment is on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is seeing an influx of refugees crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey after fleeing Syria, Iraq and sometimes further afield.
‘This is our first deployment in Europe,’ says Bopp. ‘But it is a not a natural disaster, it’s a man-made one with slightly different dynamics compared with what we usually have to deal with. The camps are overflowing with refugees.’
However, Bopp reports that a remarkably large number of the refugees have smartphones and laptops. ‘The first or second thing they ask is: can I get Wi-Fi – almost before they ask for medical attention. They are desperate to inform families and friends they are alive, and to get on the Internet to find out about asylum rules in various countries.’
The charity sent a team to Lesbos on 17 September 2015. Within days the UN was calling on its services. Two camps are being built to hold around 9,000 refugees and NGO staff. The two camps had to be connected and smaller networks built out to the north of the island where smaller NGOs are helping refugees directly when they land on the shore.
The Wi-Fi equipment is largely being supplied by Cambium Networks, whose equipment is very easy to deploy and is also very robust, according to Bopp. Equipment used by DTL so far includes: 3 x Force PTP 110 backhaul solution; 1 x PTP with ePMP integrated; 1 x AP and 1 x SM ePMP; and 7 x ePMP Hotspots – and more Cambium equipment is on the way.
Bopp adds that on Lesbos they can pick up reasonable 3G – and even 4G connectivity in places – from local mobile operators, so Cradlepoint routers are also being used to backhaul data over these local networks, rather than having to rely on satellites.
Commenting on the Lesbos deployment, Cambium Networks’ president and CEO, Atul Bhatnagar, said: “The recent network deployment we have completed with Disaster Tech Lab shows the monumental difference that wireless connectivity can make in areas that lack wireline infrastructure – especially in times of humanitarian need.
‘For this project on the island of Lesbos in Greece, it was imperative for the network to be deployed quickly. Of equal importance was network reliability through adverse weather conditions, and ease of maintenance for on-site engineers. We are extremely proud that all of these objectives were met and are honoured to be involved with this effort.’
DTL is currently working with an aviation company in the US on a wireless sensor device mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone, which can be used to fly over disaster areas. Its task is to geo-locate Wi-Fi and cellular signals, which may indicate the presence of survivors.
The data is then fed back to handheld tablets and laptops used by search and rescue teams, who can then see where the detected device is on a map. They can then better direct their search and rescue resources more fruitfully. Field tests are due to begin after the New Year.
Bopp says that the focus is now more and more on resilience building. ‘We try to build in more permanent communications now, which will hopefully still be there if another hurricane comes along.’
Finally, it should be emphasised that Disaster Tech Lab relies on volunteers, so if anyone with Wi-Fi skills wants to put them to good use in ‘challenging and interesting places’, as Bopp puts it, then they just need to go to the DTL website at www.disastertechlab.org and click on the Recruitment menu button. Similarly, vendors who would like to donate equipment can click on the Support Us! menu button.