Aaron Huslage didn’t start out to work in communications for hard-to-reach places. In 2005, he was working in the aftermath of Katrina. He led a huge volunteer effort to set up a wireless network that spanned 250 miles of the disaster area. 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.
"I realized what we were doing was great, but we were reinventing the wheel, which is not a sustainable thing for disaster relief," says Huslage. "I knew there was an easier way, but the hardware and software weren’t there yet, to make it really easy to use, fast, and transparent."
In 2010, the Haiti earthquake happened—another wake-up call, and another example that showed five years later there still wasn’t forward momentum in post-disaster communications.
After the Egyptian government cracked down on citizens using the Internet in 2011, Huslage was again inspired, and he started Tethr, a company that makes shoe-box-size open-source hardware and software to get people on the phone and online from anywhere in the world.
Tethr has the hardware necessary to connect to the net via satellite modem, Wi-Fi, 3G, ethernet, and even dial-up. It also comes with an open-source GSM messaging box and platform. The whole set-up sells for about $2,500.
Huslage says that the software could be tailored to any situation: voice over Internet, uploadable maps, and other needs. But most of all, it’s simple. "We provide people the opportunity to run apps on those machines locally," explains Huslage. "If you need maps, email, telephone service, or to create a GSM phone network—it’s all really easy to use. You just turn it on and it works."
The Internet has changed the way people respond after disasters. Industry doesn’t have a solution to the communications crisis now, says Huslage. "People are shoehorning their existing technology into a situation they weren’t meant to be in. You can throw a bunch of computers in a rack and a box, but it means that you still need an IT guy at the other end of it, somebody there to make it work."
Tethr is meant to plug in and go. The box can be powered with a 20-watt solar pack and a battery, and it can even go for five days just running on battery power.
Huslage says he’d like to see the technology go beyond disaster zones and into remote areas. He is working in Qatar currently, where he has set up a network to support students doing citizen science in the mangrove forest north of Doha. The network covers two kilometers of the forest with wireless Internet signal.
He’d like the technology to go further. "I hope that Tethr can be a part of connecting the 4.7 billion unconnected people, and helping scientists as well as disaster zones. I can’t afford to do it free, but I would if I could."