In 2017, Mozilla and the National Science Foundation asked two questions: How can we reconnect people to the Internet and other communications networks quickly and easily when disaster takes out access? And how can we permanently connect currently unconnected communities in an affordable and scalable way?
To encourage developers to get serious about finding answers, they offered US $2 million in prize money in what they tagged the Wireless Innovation for a Networked Society challenge.
This week, the organizations awarded $1.6 million in prizes. These came on top of $400,000 that went out earlier this year to help 20 finalists get from design to working prototype.
Claiming top honors and $400,000 each were HERMES, from Rhizomatica in Philadelphia, and the Southern Connected Communities Network (SCCN) from the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn.
HERMES, for “High-frequency Emergency and Rural Multimedia Exchange System,” is a communications network in a suitcase (actually, two suitcases) that can step in when traditional networks are down by using 2G GSM to connect to users and a shortwave radio system with a telescoping antenna as a backhaul. HERMES enables local calling, SMS texting, and the use of messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The innovation won in the Off-the-Grid Internet category.
SCCN uses an 80-foot tower to connect to an Internet access point and to homes up to 25 miles away, using line-of-sight connections in the unlicensed wireless spectrum. The team has a working prototype in New Market, Tenn., connecting to an access point in Knoxville. SCCN took the top prize in the Smart Community Networks category.
Winning smaller cash prizes for Off-the-Grid Internet innovations were:
Project Lantern by Paper & Equator in collaboration with the Shared Reality Lab at McGill University, a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that can connect to other hotspots to create an open Wi-Fi network along with apps that allow users to transmit messages and maps ($200,000).
EmergenCell by Spencer Sevilla, a carrier-independent LTE network in a box that uses roaming features to support all cellphones within range, and beefs up its usefulness during emergencies by preinstalling critical emergency applications ($100,000).
Wind by the Guardian Project, an effort to use existing radios and sensors in smartphones to create decentralized communications networks ($50,000).
And the second- through fourth-place winners for Smart Community Networks were:
The Equitable Internet Initiative by Allied Media Projects, an effort to bring the Internet to more households in Detroit through shared connections ($250,000).
SMARTI by the San Antonio Housing Authority, a solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspot that can support 25 users within 600 feet ($100,000).
ESU 5 Homework Hotspot by Educational Service Unit 5, to provide Wi-Fi hotspots in parks, ball fields, libraries, and other public areas in Beatrice, Neb. ($50,000).
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.