Are Wi-Fi meshes the answer to disaster communications?

Wireless groups are putting Wi-Fi meshes into the Gulf, enabling victims to get information, connect to loved ones, and apply for aid.

"When communications  crumble,  do  does society,"  Clive Thompson wrote  Sunday in the New York Times ("Talking in the Dark"). Communications  crumbled big-time in  Katrina.

For a week, just about the only people with communications were those government officials and reporters lucky enough to have two-way radios or satellite phones with adequately charged batteries. Everyone else staggered around in blind ignorance - which helped produce horrifying pandemonium.

In this piece, Thompson looks enthusiastically at Wi-Fi meshes - large-scale combinations of Wi-Fi antennas that can provide connectivity across an entire city - and profiles the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a mesh project in Chicago.

Each node can communicate with its neighbor a few hundred feet away; by cooperating in this fashion, they form an enormous bucket brigade, each passing the data signal along until everyone is sharing it. If one single household connects to the Internet, all the other households can instantly dip in. Best of all, the WiFi mesh can handle not only data but also phone calls - via the magic of "voice over IP," an increasingly popular technique for transmitting conversation over the Internet. Should the local phone lines suddenly collapse, the residents of these neighborhoods can still make calls to one another using headsets attached to their computers. In essence, they are their own backup phone company.

Isn't this exactly the low-cost, low-complexity solution that really works and isn't under the control of monopoly telecom vendors?

So why don't cities build their own WiFi meshes to help cope with the next disaster? Scatter enough nodes on rooftops citywide, and then if the phone system collapses, there will probably be a surviving mesh strong enough to serve as a rudimentary backup. Connect even a single satellite uplink to the mesh, and the entire town remains linked to the outside world. Best of all, each WiFi node uses extremely little power - about 10 watts, barely a sixth of the average light bulb. Even if a city's power grid fails, a car battery or solar panel could keep a node running for days or weeks, filling the gap while the phone companies rebuild their land-line and mobile-phone structures.

And it's not just what-if. CNT and other wireless outfits are in the Gulf, putting Wi-Fi into shelters and generally beefing up communications.