October 20, 2005

Inveneo lights up Bay St. Louis

Author: Rob Reilly

In the usual course of business, Inveneo provides information and communication technology for remote villages in places such as Uganda. But after Hurricane Katrina hit the US south coast at the end of August, the company went to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to set up a communication system for relief workers, who needed to be able to talk to each other and coordinate relief supplies for local residents.

Once on site, the Inveneo team were asked to expand the project to include a communications center for residents. People needed to contact loved ones, file insurance claims, and fill out FEMA forms, as well as connect to the outside world.

The US military pitched in with generators and meals for the team. Soon, local officials were requesting that the communications system be expanded to provide services to local police and fire departments. Within a short time the Inveneo team, in partnership with the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), was able to "light up" much of the Bay St. Louis area, and they have been asked to continue to expand into two of the neighboring counties.

Laura Mellow, Inveneo's COO said, "When the Inveneo team arrived, the large telcos had not made it to Bay St. Louis. Their focus was on the larger population areas first. Inveneo has had conversations with one of the large telcos regarding supplementing their efforts by using Inveneo to reach into the small towns and hamlets as a bridge solution until their teams can get in to rebuild the damaged infrastructure.

"The people using the services are very grateful to have this access. There have been times when the guys setting up the network are brought to tears by the gratitude they receive," Mellow said.

Inveneo uses Asterisk and other open source software for the connections. The system includes computers and phones connected through the computers using voice over IP (VoIP), which are set up in several locations. Most of the computers are standard desktop models, but Inveneo also installed many low-powered machines that were donated by Wyse Technologies.

Computers with no moving parts (such as fans and disks), low-power boards, and CompactFlash cards are the order of the day. The main boards usually run on less than 10 watts, as do the LCD displays. When you are running a computer by solar panels or pedal power, the power budget is necessarily very low.

Their African deployments made Inveneo an ideal company to bring into the Bay St. Louis area after Katrina. Conditions were similarly challenging, in their own ways. As in Africa, the Gulf State region had very little infrastructure to work with. And, where the villages have a small few small hotels and guest houses available, housing in Bay St. Louis has been at an absolute premium.

Inveneo had to contend with a lack of motor vehicles in Western Uganda. In Mississippi there were lots of vehicles, but gasoline was a problem. In some ways the villagers in Uganda were in a better situation, as they still have their villages and their homes.

Inveneo was able to connect the central hub of Bay St. Louis to Perlington on the west and Gulf Port on the east. It has also extended the network to Pass Christian and Diamondhead. MCI, Intel, and Skytel worked to provide backbone network connectivity.

The relief effort for the Katrina disaster is ongoing, and "Inveneo is very proud to be a part of the relief effort," said Mellow.


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