Somehow, between the dust storms, the searing heat, the barren desert, and the lack of built-in infrastructure, there manages to be Internet access at Burning Man's Black Rock City. The 15-plus person volunteer team that keeps it running considers their network a utility, something that needs to perform well at all times so that emergency services—and playa-goers who want to stay in touch with friends and family—can be connected. But it didn't start out that way.
"Early on, this was my form of an art project," says Matt Peterson, who has been working on the Burning Man network for over 15 years. When he began, there were two competing networks: one built by a group that put up a satellite connection, and PlayaNET, the internal wireless network for the Burning Man community that Peterson worked on. "We had kind of a Mapquest clone, a Craigslist clone, like a wiki, and we built terminals around the event site. We assumed people didn't have Wi-Fi or laptops," he says. "It was a lot more DIY back then. Now we see ourselves as an infrastructure provider that can't really do the DIY stuff at the event. It has to be reliable."
In his other life, Peterson works at Cumulus Networks, where he has helped build temporary networks in more Internet-friendly environments like SXSW (Peterson was previously Director of Infrastructure at Tumblr). At Burning Man, however, Peterson has challenges that go far beyond what he deals with at SXSW, which is anchored in a convention center that can access multiple broadband providers.
On the playa, there is no broadband-capable infrastructure within 80 miles. In the past, Burning Man generated Internet access with a single T1 circuit, which was shot out from nearby Gerlach, Nevada, to the event. But at 1.5 Mbps per second, which is slower than many cell phones, the circuit had limited capacity for high-speed connections and, ultimately, the method didn't provide enough bandwidth.
"For the last five years, we've been able to work with a small wireless ISP that covers most of northern Nevada all the way down to Carson City," says Peterson. "It's still our responsibility to go from Gerlach out to the event site. In a normal city, you call up the utility and things show up. We are the utility for this city." As part of its partnership with High Desert Internet Solution, the IT department shoots 40 Mbps of capacity from Gerlach out to Burning Man.
Peterson spends a total of three weeks each year on the playa. The first week of August, he and the team are "all hands on deck," putting up towers, running cables, and generally getting as much infrastructure up as possible. The week before Burning Man (this year, the week of August 19th), he goes back to continue preparations. The whole team is on site during Burning Man. "Throughout the years, we've really focused on doing a lot of automation," he says. "We have three or four people on rotation who know how to add or remove devices quickly to the network."
The network services about 40 departments within Burning Man and 150 camps, all of which bring equipment to connect. Some of the services that the network provides are critical. The Emergency Services Department, for example, uses a digital dispatch system that staff members can access remotely. Another medical department has, in the past, used the network to send X-ray scans to remote technicians and doctors. And the commissary, which feeds thousands of volunteers, leans on the network to place orders with food distributors and staff.
"We don't get too involved in the application layer. At the end of the day, our goal is to be like a Sonic.net or a Monkeybrains [a San Francisco-based ISP]. Everyone has a pretty legitimate use for it," says Peterson. Still, certain groups—like the emergency department—get two radios and a router. Each radio connects to a different point on the playa, so if one goes down temporarily, the organization can stay connected.
Despite temporary outages, the Burning Man network is remarkably efficient. Says Peterson: "We routinely get people who say 'Wow, this is more reliable and consistent performance than we get in the Bay Area."