Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 14:09 UK

Broadband in a backpack

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

A man takes a picture of a ruined building with a mobile phone
Using broadband connections, those worst hit by disasters can transmit pictures and video

In the aftermath of a disaster, any connection to the outside world can be life-saving.

When telephone networks inevitably crumble, it can be days before those affected can contact their families or relief agencies.

The Network Relief Kit
The kit is the most lightweight of its kind

Wireless communication expert Mike Outmesguine has demonstrated an easy way to produce a "Network Relief Kit" - an ultra-portable method of connecting to the internet from almost any location in the world.

The entire kit can be carried in a back-pack, and offers a fast enough connection to watch videos on YouTube.

Not without a price, however - data transfer typically costs between $3-$6 (£2-£4) per megabyte, payable to providers of satellite internet connections such as Inmarsat.

"These satellites cost a lot to put into space - they are recovering that cost in subscription fees," said Mr Outmesguine, adding that high pricing prevents the overloading of the service.

The pack consists of several lightweight components which combine to give the ability to upload photos and videos, make calls and e-mail.

Mr Outmesguine says getting quick access to the internet means relief efforts can be more targeted and efficient. People within disaster zones can direct relief to the places and people that need it most.

As well as this, people in hostile areas can let loved ones know they are safe.

"A new concept in disaster relief is the people who are affected getting in touch with their relatives - especially the ones outside the area," Mr Outmesguine told BBC World Service's Digital Planet.

Connected in moments

The main component is the satellite receiver which works anywhere - with the exception of the North and South Pole.

It becomes a big powerful psychological help.
Mike Outmesguine

It connects to one of three satellites orbiting the earth to get an internet connection. The receiver can then be plugged in, using ethernet cables, to a standard router, VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phone or similar devices.

The kit provides internet speeds comparable to low-end broadband connections.

It bypasses the need to rely on big organisations such as the Red Cross to mobilise and re-connect cut off areas. Instead, these relief kits can be set up in moments - and information about casualties and injuries can be transmitted.

When NGOs do arrive, Mr Outmesguine says that they can use the technology to set up a local network which an entire team can work from on laptops or mobile phones.

After Hurricane Katrina, similar technology was used around New Orleans. It meant wi-fi networks were in place and operational well before cellular networks had come back online.

"We saw internet cafes popping up using a satellite internet connection. It became a hub of activity for people to come and use e-mail," he said.

"It's not one of the survival components like food or water. But it becomes a big powerful psychological help."

Getting cheaper

Bill Brindley, head of IT consortium NetHope, says the cost of producing the network relief kits is plummeting as they get easier to use.

Digital Planet is the weekly technology programme broadcast from the BBC World Service
It is broadcast on Tuesday at 1232GMT and repeated at 1632GMT, 2032GMT and on Wednesday at 0032GMT
It is also available as a podcast
It can be found on the social networks Facebook and Orkut

"Initially the kits we put together in 2003-2004 cost close to $40,000 and you had to send a technologist with them.

"Now we've got the whole kit, including the solar panel, down to around $3,000."

The cost effective solar panel is a key improvement.

"In the initial kit, you'd have to hook it up to a big truck battery. Now we have portable kits which have all kinds of power connections. One in particular is a thin film solar panel that you fold out and literally collect power during the day when the sun is out, and then recharge at night."

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