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Matter of Life & Tech

Tethr: Getting online in a crisis

About the author

Clark is the technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and US public radio co-production. For the past seven years, he has also hosted The World's Technology Podcast, a weekly audio offering that spins the globe in search of the latest and greatest in technology stories. He tweets at @worldstechpod and can be found on Facebook.

Man walks past flames in the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake (Copyright: Getty Images)

The project came out of disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti (Copyright: Getty Images)

The tiny box designed to help anyone make a call or get on the net from anywhere on the planet.

"I'm five years too early with everything. I don't know if that's a bug, or a feature, but it is what it is," says Aaron Huslage with a laugh. He's explaining to me how, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he came up with the idea for tethr, a shoebox-sized set of hardware designed to help anyone get internet and phone connections from any spot on the planet.

At the time of the disaster, Huslage helped a group of volunteers build a working wireless network from Gulfport, Mississippi, to the Louisiana border. Using donated equipment, expertise and time, the group managed to create a network that provided free internet and phone service to between 70,000 and 80,000 people for half a year following the hurricane. Huslage did most of his work on the project remotely as he was living at the other end of the country in Portland, Oregon at the time. "I was mostly just wrangling things," he says. "Making sure people were going where they were supposed to go and that things were delivered to the right place at the right time." But he did eventually go down to the Gulf Coast for a week to work the project.

"The whole thing was crazy," he remembers. "We were building infrastructure, and I remember thinking, 'This is really, really hard stuff.'" Networks could include servers, multiples routers and various layers of software to configure. He started considering ways he might be able to miniaturize the hardware needed to make such connectivity possible. But the hardware, he discovered, really didn't exist, or at least not in forms small enough to work together efficiently, and affordably, in one small package."So, I shelved the idea," he tells me.

From 2005 to 2010, Huslage spent a lot of volunteer time working with, and helping develop, some of the incredibly powerful software that is now available to people working in crisis and post-crisis situations. For example, there's Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced reporting platform which has provided real-time data on everything from elections in Nigeria to "Snowmageddon" in New York City. Then there is Open Street Map, an open-source mapping project which provided some of the first truly accurate maps of Port-au-Prince, Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

It was in the aftermath of that quake, when Huslage was doing some volunteer work helping to build wireless mesh networks with a group called Inveneo, that he was once again struck by how far the hardware lagged behind the software when it came to assisting in post-crisis situations."It's great to have great software," Huslage says. "Ushahidi and Open Street Map, all that stuff can change the world," he tells me. "But it is all useless if the hardware can't get the users connected." Aid groups need to share information quickly in a crisis to ensure aid and assistance is distributed as effectively as possible. But too many times, he says, he saw humanitarian groups take nothing but a PC and a satellite modem into a crisis area, only to be hampered by poor connections and a lack of knowledge about how the technology works. "Aid workers and first responders, they're being asked to do IT," he says. "But they don't want to have to worry about that stuff." 

‘Geeks and rebels’ 

There are organisations dedicated to helping out in these situations, such as Telecoms sans Frontieres, but limited resources means they cannot go to every crisis and help out every aid group that has communication problems. So, Huslage started looking around, pricing different pieces of gear, and found that hardware had shrunk, both in size and price, and the tools he needed were available off the shelf.

And so, after getting laid off from his day job last January ("Actually, I laid myself off," Huslage jokes), he decided to work full-time on the development of tethr. What he and his team have come up with is a package of hardware that fits into a case about 6in-long, 4in-wide and 3-in tall (15cmx10cmx7.5cm). It contains the hardware necessary to connect to the net via satellite modem, wi-fi, 3G, ethernet and even dial-up. It also comes with OpenBTS, an open-source GSM messaging box and platform. This prototype runs with a version of the open-source operating system Ubuntu Linux. The software could be tailored to any situation, but right now, Huslage has it loaded up with a database, VOIP software similar to Skype, Ushahidi, and Open Street Map. The user interface, Huslage says, is like a webpage, and is designed to allow the user maximum control over what type of connections to use for certain tasks, and also giving simple instructions on how to, say, point the satellite modem in the right direction.

Huslage says the idea is that people could eventually develop their own software for tethr, and add it to their boxes themselves. Ease of use is what Huslage calls tethr's "secret sauce"."You want to think really hard about how your users would want to use something like this. You don't want to make them do a bunch of technical things they don't want to do, just because you're too lazy to write some code."

When it comes to powering tethr, Huslage says they are “agnostic about [it] in a religious way”. What he means is that he doesn't want to dictate to users how to power tethr. After all, he says, people will find themselves in wildly different situations when it comes to available power sources. Currently, it has no built-in battery. The unit runs off of a 12-volt DC connection. "You can plug it into a car battery and it works fine," Huslage says. "And you can almost always find a car battery somewhere." But, Huslage notes, there's also an AC adapter, and there's no reason it couldn't be modified to run off of a solar battery. He's leaving it up to the users. "If we have a bunch of people asking for a battery, we'll put one in."

I ask him about price. The answer's a bit tricky, because the project is in such early stages. Right now, the unit would cost around $2,000. But if production got going, Huslage thinks the price a year from now would be more like $500, and maybe even as low as $100 by year three. The sticking point, though, is getting the same foundations, organizations and investors that rave about crisis software to take a chance on hardware. In a recent blog post on tethr, Erik Hersman, who is one of the people behind the Ushahidi crowd-sourcing software, wrote: "Software products are easier to get going, there are lower barriers to entry and people can see and play with them quite quickly. Funding of hardware projects like tethr is a little more challenging."

But Hersman also says that he feels tethr fills a real need in post-disaster scenarios, and can find a "ready market" for its product. When it comes to hardware, Hersman wrote, "the disaster and crisis response space is ripe for upheaval in this as well. We’ve had some major changes, that many are still getting used to, just based on mobile phones and the internet – but that’s only the beginning. We started to see what can happen when geeks and rebels get into hardware and communications in places like Libya and Brazil. This can only continue to accelerate."

It helps, of course, that the price and size of the connection hardware is coming down, and that it's easier and cheaper than ever to prototype something. Aaron Huslage says tethr is currently looking for around $750,000 in funding. He has also entered tethr in a competition called the Knight News Challenge, as a potential tool for journalists to collect information in the field, and file stories effectively.

Ultimately, Huslage says he can see many different uses for tethr. At a recent social business summit in Vienna, Huslage says people from a host of different backgrounds, from running yogurt factories, to managing Ugandan farms, to doing mobile banking, told him they could see uses for tethr. With all that demand, I ask, why isn't this product already in people's hands?

"It astounds me every day that no one else is doing this. Then again, it's taken us a year to get where we are. It's easy to conceive of things. The reality is much more complicated."

But he concludes: "I feel lucky to be able to work on this. It's potentially transformative, but it's also a heck of a lot of fun."

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