A $7,000 'disaster suitcase' could provide internet access to rural areas and places hit by natural disasters

  • Internet connectivity can fail when natural disasters strike, and it is not available in some rural areas to begin with.
  • Since early 2017, Mozilla and the National Science Foundation have partnered for the Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society Challenges to help make the internet more accessible.
  • This year’s winner of the Off-The-Grid Internet Challenge is a company that provides internet infrastructure to areas hit by disasters.
  • Rhizomatica uses suitcases, short-wave radio, and GSM technology to let people make local calls and send text messages without using cables or satellites.

Communication networks are often the first to fail when natural disasters strike. More than 30 millions people in the United States already do not have quality internet connectivity, and this number rises by millions during a disaster.

In an effort to make the internet more resilient, Mozilla runs the Off-The-Grid Internet Challenge, which rewards new ideas for deploying wireless communication to areas where internet access is unavailable. A company called Rhizomatica took home the $US400,000 prize this year for HERMES, or the High­-frequency Emergency and Rural Multimedia Exchange System.

HERMES does not rely on cables or satellites. Instead, it uses short-wave radio and Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) technology, which makes it reliable in rural areas and disaster scenarios, according to Rhizomatica. The system, contained in two suitcases, allows people to make local calls and send text messages, and it allows people who are not at disaster sites to relay information to those affected.

“In an emergency, you want to be able to tell people you’re ok,” Rhizomatica said in a statement. “HERMES allows you to tell anyone, anywhere with a phone number that you’re ok. And that person can respond to you over text or with a voice message.”

Rhizomatica’s main user-facing technology is 2G GSM, the most common digital communication technology worldwide. It also lets people connect to the network for a longer period of time, as it drains the battery minimally.

“By investing in affordable, scalable solutions like these, we can unlock opportunity for millions of Americans,” Jim Kurose, head of the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation, which sponsors the competition, said in a statement.

The version of HERMES presented at the Off-The-Grid Internet Challenge cost about $US7,000, Peter Bloom, general coordinator at Rhizomatica, told Business Insider. Bloom said the company believes it can lower the cost significantly by using different hardware, and it hopes to offer HERMES for $US1,000 one day.

Rhizomatica has not yet decided whether it will sell HERMES as a standalone product for the public, Bloom said. It’s more likely that the company will deploy the suitcases to organisations.

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