Burning Man vets bring Wi-Fi to Katrina region

Attendees used to making-do at the desert art festival are using new mobile hot-spot technology to get Internet access while they help. Photos: Helping out in Mississippi

As veterans of Burning Man, the annual art festival held in a remote Nevada desert, Tom Price and a group of about 20 others who have been volunteering with post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction in Mississippi are used to persevering in forbidding environments.

But when members of the group wanted to stay in touch with friends and family, and needed to keep up with the contract jobs that allow them to spend weeks and months on the Gulf Coast, the nearly complete lack of Internet access posed a problem.

Burners Without Borders

Now the group, known as , is using new Kyocera mobile hot-spot technology to create a wide-area-network in an area with little, if any, Internet access. Their shoestring network, based on $250 routers and $150 wireless cards, could prove to be a model for other volunteer groups in disaster areas.

"People are trying to work virtually, so they can stay down here," said Price, a journalist and former Washington lobbyist who has been in Mississippi on and off for months since Katrina hit. "We have Web designers and database managers and writers attempting to be in two places at once. Before we got wired up, that meant driving (20 minutes) into town and parking outside a Best Western that had Wi-Fi and trying to jam out a few e-mail messages."

Since Katrina pulverized the Gulf Coast last year, there have been several efforts to use technology to help residents get their lives back in order, or at least to help aid workers in their efforts.

Among them are Intel initiatives to donate more than 2,300 laptop computers for use in American Red Cross shelters and to deploy wireless broadband technology like WiMax for use by first-responders. Also, an international effort by bloggers raised $1.35 million in relief aid for hurricane victims.

"It's difficult to exaggerate the level of destruction here...none of the timelines for providing any services have ever been met."
--Tom Price, Burners Without Borders

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, just as last year's Burning Man was starting. As soon as the festival ended, a handful of volunteers drove the heavy equipment they use to build the infrastructure for the event--which 36,000 people attended last year--and headed south, hoping they could help.

The problem for the volunteers was pretty basic: In order to keep volunteering, they needed access to the Internet so they could do their day jobs. After hearing about Kyocera's new KR1 mobile router, which enables anyone with cell phone coverage and a PC Air card to create a WAN that can serve up to 10 people simultaneously, Price contacted the company and begged for help.

Kyocera responded quickly, he said, donating one of its new routers and a new PC Air card even before the router had hit the market publicly.

The router takes PC Air cards--which allow a single user to get broadband access anywhere there's cell phone coverage--and broadcasts a high-speed signal that many people can use.

And that's true even in an area like Pearlington, Miss., where Burners Without Borders is helping tear down destroyed houses and supporting residents of a town where there is still almost no functional government or operational communications infrastructure, with the notable exception of cell phones.

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