One technology that Motorola is offering to the hurricane-ravaged region is Motobridge, an Internet-based system that distributes control on a network, so if one node goes down or loses power, the entire communications system won’t fail.
The company first deployed Motobridge in December 2004, and hopes to have 265 dispatch centers in public safety offices around the country by the end of the year.
Another technology that could help in a disaster like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is mesh networking (although it’s not clear that it’s been deployed in the Gulf Coast region yet). Unlike the failure of traditional communications systems, such as telephone networks, which are based on central nodes, mesh networking is a distributed technology, which means it can remain largely functional if individuals nodes are damaged.
Motorola put its mesh networking technology into place in Florida last year after Hurricane Charley. It was used to monitor staging areas that were vulnerable to looting. Rather than positioning a dozen police cruisers around a parking lot filled with food and water, public safety officials positioned mesh-network-connected video cameras around the lot. The cameras fed a video stream to a police crew in a single cruiser, thereby freeing up other officers for more pressing concerns.
“The city used the self-forming, self-healing aspects of mesh networking to pop up this video surveillance system,” says Rick Rotondo, director of marketing for Motorola’s mesh networking division. “It didn’t cost much. It was reusable. There was no permanent infrastructure involved.”
In the aftermath of a similar disaster, the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004, Intel quickly set up Wi-Max (wireless interoperability for microwave access), which increases the range of broadband from 150 feet (the Wi-Fi limit) up to 30 miles.
“We set up Wi-Max in Indonesia that covered the Banda Aceh,” says Amy Martin. “It allowed relief agencies to communicate and helped relief get there more quickly and more efficiently.”
There’s “great potential” for Wi-Max to assist in places like New Orleans, Martin says.
Clearly, such new technologies can make a huge difference in bringing information and communications to an area where there currently is none. What’s more, wireless and Internet technologies can do so without the need for developing huge new projects on the ground – just the kind of infrastructure that’s so vulnerable.
At the same time, citizens out of the danger zone can use the Internet to show support, raise money, and reach out to loved ones who are lost.
“It’s striking,” says Craigslist’s Buckmaster, “the poignancy of people looking to provide temporary housing, this outpouring of generosity, during this horrific devastating natural disaster.”