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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
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 Burners Without Borders, 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.

John Chier, Kyocera director of communications, said that Price's phone call gave the company a chance to live up to what he said is a longstanding corporate philosophy of helping out when it can.

"The opportunity was many-faceted for us," said Chier. "The opportunity to work with (Price) to support what sounded like a very noteworthy and noble cause, to get this town back on its feet, and an opportunity to put a KR1 mobile router in the middle of a high-stress environment and let it show its stripes."

For Price and other members of Burners Without Borders, being able to reliably get online has been a boon. And that's not surprising, he said, given that the group is comprised largely of people who normally rely on the Internet to organize.

The group has depended on donations from the Internet-savvy community of Burning Man attendees and beyond to stay in Mississippi, Price said. The money is needed for items such as the $200 daily diesel fuel tab for the heavy equipment they use to tear down badly damaged buildings and homes.

And because many of those donations were coordinated via the Internet, it has been crucial for the group to get online, even when it looked like it would never be possible to get so much as a dial-up connection.

"The (phone company) is overwhelmed," Price said. "It's difficult to exaggerate the level of destruction here...none of the timelines for providing any services have ever been met. People have stopped counting on that sort of thing. This is an environment where you really have to be incredibly self-reliant, and fortunately that's something we know how to do."

Indeed, as veterans of many years of the Burning Man festival--held in the inhospitable Black Rock Desert where there is no water and dust storms are common--the group has learned how to solve difficult technological problems in rough environs.

Getting their hands on equipment like the Kyocera router and running it off a solar cell has made it possible for the group to once again bring technology into an area that still has few of the conveniences of modern America.

And Price thinks that all disaster relief agencies and organizations should look at the new Kyocera technology as something they will never want to be without.

"It's amazing, and this is the kind of wonder technology that the Internet always promised us," he said. "For groups working in a disaster zone, this should be as much a part of their equipment as generators, chainsaws and camping gear. For people working in a place where normal services have fallen apart, this is absolutely must-have equipment."