Call it hope in a box or an angel on the broadband airwaves. Relief workers in Bangladesh and elsewhere following the devastating cyclone Sidr in November have used those descriptions and more in praising NetHope’s latest iteration of its Network Relief Kit.
The NRK, developed over several years to provide instant communications for first responders where natural disasters have wiped out the existing communications infrastructure, was used to speed communications and coordinate early relief efforts among charitable organizations such as Oxfam, the Red Cross and Save the Children in the aftermath of the massive storm.
Thanks to refinements in the third generation of the NRK, relief workers were able to quickly establish voice and data communications, despite power being out to the Ganges Delta area for days after the typhoon hit. Sidr killed up to 15,000 people and displaced 280,000 families, according to news reports.
The NRK, which can fit in a backpack, includes a solar power kit that allows it to operate without having access to a vehicle battery. It weighs about four pounds and connects satellite phones as well as laptops to a satellite network that covers the globe.
That network, run by Inmarsat in London, provides broadband connectivity at 492 Kbps. Called the Broadband Global Area Network, it can connect users to the Internet anywhere in the world, except for the polar icecaps, said Rui Lopes, senior director of technology for Save the Children, a member of the NetHope consortium. Both the mobility of the device and the high-speed connectivity are key to initial relief efforts. Field workers that are the first to respond to disasters such as Typhoon Sidr need to be highly mobile as they assess the situation, determine key requirements and marshal resources to meet those requirements.
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Being able to operate at those data rates allows field workers to be more efficient because they can use e-mail and Web portals to communicate requirements to suppliers and agencies responding to disasters.
“In any emergency nowadays, the most critical thing is e-mail. The data rates BGAN is providing make it much more efficient to e-mail compared to the old days, where you might be lucky to transmit at 14.4 Kbps,” said Lopes.
Being able to transmit pictures from digital cameras is enabled by those data rates.
While satellite phones are still the primary communications vehicle for disaster response because of cost issues and the newness of the technology, using e-mail and the Internet now makes the response to disasters more efficient for members of the NetHope consortium.
“With voice communications, it’s a one-to-one relationship. On e-mail, we can go one to many, or get on a collaborative Web site and post information live and knock off many birds with one stone,” Lopes said.
The NRK came out of efforts to apply advanced information and communications technology to non-profit organizations—funded initially by Cisco Systems—which led to the creation of NetHope. NetHope’s mission is to help NGO (non-governmental organization) members use technology to respond faster and more efficiently to disasters and to collaborate with those NGOs to develop best practices for deploying the technology.
“Now we’re 21 members in 186 countries around the world and $33 billion in program revenue among the member groups,” said Bill Brindley, CEO and executive director of NetHope. “We have huge scale and stature and a seven-year track record of these folks working together successfully.”
The first-generation NRK, although useful, was expensive and awkward to transport and use. NRKs initially cost as much as $40,000 and came in a suitcase-size kit that weighed 60 pounds, Brindley said. Now they cost $3,000 to $4,000. “[The first-generation NRK] worked, but it required a technologist to go with it, it had to be shipped, then you had to get it through customs, then get it on a truck to go to a site, hook up to the truck with big power cords, and it required a technical person to be there to make it all happen,” he said.
The new full kit includes an agency-specific laptop with mouse, power pack and cables; the solar power kit with connection cables; the BGAN satellite link with user guide spare battery, power pack and car battery adapter; mobile phone and charger; analog phone and universal charger, Bluetooth handset with base and charger; and a USB memory stick. Data interfaces include Ethernet, Bluetooth and ISDN through a USB port. Telephony interfaces are RJ-11 and Bluetooth handset. It supports both IP and VOIP as well as circuit-switched voice and data, as well as major VPN and encryption standards.
Some of the NRKs also include built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing relief workers to set up a mini-network to share the BGAN satellite link, Lopes said. A team of some 10 engineers is constantly looking at the NRKs to refine them further and is putting together guidelines for deploying them in the field.
Although the price of the units has dropped dramatically, the connectivity costs for BGAN are still high. The cost is about $5 per megabyte transferred, Lopes said.
Beyond working with Inmarsat on costs, NetHope engineers also added a kind of meter that allows users to better keep track of how much the link costs, and a new remote administrative capability allows engineers to gather aggregate usage data on an NRK in the field. “So I can ask people to watch it [on what they’re spending]. And with the same admin tools, we can protect it to limit people going out to certain sites or limit the kinds of traffic that would run up the bills,” Lopes said.
The NRKs were developed to provide communications during the initial phase of relief operations, and be phased out as more permanent Very Small Aperture Terminal network links were put in place.
As NetHope sees it, there are three stages to disaster relief efforts, each of which has different IT requirements. The first comes within hours of the disaster when the first relief workers hit the ground, Brindley said. They get assessments and initial relief material, and determine personnel requirements. “That stage is characterized by highly individualized, mobile and transient computing requirements. Teams have to be highly mobile. With satellite connectivity, they can transmit video, pictures, data and set up a small network for teams moving around and use minimal power,” he said.
The second stage is within two weeks of a disaster, when more teams arrive and they have to deal with victims’ longer-term needs: malnutrition, disease and displacement. “You have to assess needs, tents and blankets come in, and you have big security risks as people prey on other people. That is characterized by a group of up to 10 people roving around in groups with easy to set up and take down devices,” Brindley said.
The third stage, which can range from one month to years after the disaster, is when agencies bring in VSAT technology to create more semi-permanent communications.
Although only a couple of NRKs were deployed for the Typhoon Sidr disaster, they supported dozens of relief workers who in turn supported more workers. While there is still more work to be done, the kits are now coming back out of the field, he said.
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