Playa phone at Burning Man
If you noticed a long break in the blogging, it's because I was at Burning Man. And while people do blog from Burning Man, it's not what you want to spend your time doing. I will have more entries in the future, but let me relate some stories of the network and the phone booth first.
Last year, we erected a free phone booth in the desert to great results. This year, it was going to be even better because of a plan for a new internet connection. In the past, John Gilmore had brought his satellite dish, which had all the latency and bandwidth limits of satellite. This year he splurged on getting a microwave link in, which will be even faster next year. Sadly, much of that money was wasted because we never got the "first mile" -- the on-playa 802.11 network -- operating at a satisfactory level. There was huge packet loss and jitter in most places, when it was up at all. Next time some of the money will go into better equipment and planning for the local network.
As such, the phone booth, located in our camp on 7:30, only worked intermittently and rarely with great voice quality. We eventually decided to sacrifice the aesthetic purity of a booth sitting in the desert, connected to nothing, and moved it on its wagon by trike to the center camp, home of the incoming microwave link. The we set it up on the street, with an ethernet wire snaking in. We were no longer wireless, but the voice quality was top notch. I wasn't able to spend much time with it but reports were that the line got very long at times.
In our own camp, you could tell if it was working or not based on whether there was a line. Even waiting for it to work was better than the 2-3 hour time investment of taking the bus to the phone booth in Gerlach.
Last year, I recounted the emotional experience people had using an unexpected and impossible phone to hear the voices of loved ones. This year, this was magnified by Katrina. I learned of Katrina, in fact, when people came to ask to use the phone to contact their relatives in NOLA. (Read on...)
Last year it was fun, but this year it was serious. People sat at the phone in tears trying to find relatives, frustrated that calls into the area got network busy messages. Many had happy tears, findout out that people were OK. In the past, it had been funny that nobody knew the phone numbers of their friends without their cell's address book, now it was an emergency.
Of course I put up a sign giving precedence in line to people touched by the disaster, and recommending they not call New Orleans directly but instead call others outside the area who would have been in touch with their loved ones. The lack of directory assistance hurt a bit here (though web access allowed some of that.)
In a strange irony, when I was renting the RV, the owner wanted to show me how to use the satellite TV dish on it. I said it was extremely unlikely I would use the TV at Burning Man, "unless there was another world trade center level disaster." I used the TV. :-(
Even so I did so only briefly and as such, I and the others at Burning Man missed the live-on-tv aspect of this disaster. People still felt it, and there were tables collecting money and people asking everybody at exit for money. Some of course left early.
There were some other VoIP phones present, at least in the network HQ, where it was pretty easy to hook up the boxes of Vonage and other providers (including Broadvoice, which provided the SIP service for my phone). My 802.11 pocket phone suffered the same fate of the problems of the wireless net. These phones were not public though.
My new voice mail system worked, and some people were transcribing the voice mails on the internal web server (now down) at 4brc.com. I'll have the voicemails up on my own web site some time later for historical amusement. I don't know if any were delivered, I hope so. The up and down wireless network curtailed usage of the 4brc.com web server.
More to come on Burning Man for 2005 including many photos, down the line...