The audio on the online call keeps dropping as Alvaro Salas Castro talks about the lack of internet access in his home country of Costa Rica. In 2016, 35 percent of the country’s homes did not have internet, according to government data. Salas Castro says connectivity in remote areas remains an issue.
Internet penetration in Latin America as a whole mirrors Costa Rica’s statistics. “What that says is there’s a huge divide and a huge information gap between the remote areas and the capital cities,” says Salas Castro, co-founder of the Democracy Lab, a nonprofit that helps citizens achieve civic engagement with their governments in Central America.
The internet is vital for communication and information exchange, but almost half of people in the world don’t use it, as access remains a problem. Enter the Internet Backpack.
The Atlanta-based startup Imcon International has developed a mobile backpack that allows users to connect to the internet almost anywhere on Earth. The company hired Salas Castro as regional director of its Latin American subsidiary, based in San Jose, Costa Rica.
“We’re in one of the most unequal regions in the world,” he says. “One of the things that this technology brings, and why it’s important, and why I care so much about it, is that it gives the opportunity to level that field.”
The 19-pound backpack, which is self-powered and water-resistant, allows people to get online when other means fail or are unavailable. It includes a router to handle internet connections and a fallback satellite connection.
Imcon has four different backpack models available: educational internet (EDU), survival online services (SOS), internet of things (IOT), and emergency response services (EMS). Each backpack is tailored for specific use cases, so that the EDU model comes with a server for enhanced content storage, for instance.
“Our goal is to provide a ubiquitous online experience for all users, regardless of where they’re at,” says J. Rob Loud, who founded Imcon in 2017.
The backpack works because it’s always searching for the strongest possible local access protocol. Its core router evaluates various connection types, ranging from Ethernet to Wi-Fi to cellular systems to satellite. The backpack then connects to whichever method is the best in that moment and place, evaluating jitter speed, ping times, geographic location, and other factors.
The backpack can also adjust on the fly. For example, if a user is on a satellite connection—the slowest method used by the device—and suddenly moves to a spot with a 4G signal, the backpack will seamlessly transfer to that.
If needed, the backpack could run forever and never have to be plugged in, Loud says. It can provide internet for about 24 hours before its lithium ion battery needs to be recharged. If a wall outlet isn't available, it can be charged with a vehicle's DC power port. If those methods aren’t available, a solar panel stored in the backpack can hook into the battery and recharge the backpack in about 12 hours. Up to 50 users have connected to the backpack's signal at the same time, though bandwidth decreases as the number of connections increases.
Though Syracuse University—which developed the technology behind the backpack—originally conceived it for emergency situations, Imcon has expanded that mission to providing internet access the world over.
To take one example of a potential market, Liberia has among the lowest internet penetration rates in Africa. Just over 8 percent of the country’s population uses the internet.
“Educationally, it really diminishes what people can do in these times of being able to see things around the world using internet access,” says James Sirleaf, a member of Imcon’s board of advisers who is from Liberia and now lives in Columbus, Georgia. “It limits what Liberian children and the Liberian population can get access to and become more informed.”
Imcon is partnering with Liberia and Syracuse University to collaborate on a project to increase the country’s internet penetration to 40 percent by 2021. Because Sirleaf knows Liberia well, he introduced Imcon to government officials. (Sirleaf, a physician, is the son of former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served from 2006–18 and was the first elected female head of state in Africa.)
Imcon’s pilot in Liberia has given the backpack to two schools—and Loud says few schools in the country have internet at all. “They don’t have access to the same information opportunities that students elsewhere do, so they're already at a disadvantage.”
Sirleaf says the backpack could help alleviate problems caused by the shortage of teachers. “With the backpack, you can beam in a school from the United States. You can beam in lecturers from different areas from around the world, put students in touch with other students. My children, who live in the U.S., have spoken to a local school in Liberia,” he says. “That gives possibility in a place where there are not enough trained teachers.”
Imcon has considered eventually expanding to 10 schools in the area of Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. It has also looked at the use of the backpack in health care and agriculture.
Sirleaf says another goal of the backpack is to connect people in remote areas who don’t have internet infrastructure. He says perhaps people in smaller towns could congregate in a certain area and get online by connecting to the backpack with their phones—a town square for the Internet.
In 2018, the class at Muslim Congress High School was ready for its online meeting. The Monrovia school was about to connect with a scientist in Amsterdam and a school in New York City, testing out the backpack in the presence of Imcon.
Then, the power went out.
The backpack works without power, but the lights were off, and the or equipment in the classroom wasn't running. So the device powered everything the classroom needed for a long enough time to continue the lesson: Imcon’s equipment, students’ computers, a TV, the lights, and even a floor fan to combat the heat.
“Their own power failed, which is not uncommon in many places throughout the world, unfortunately, but the backpack allowed them not to lose the educational opportunity,” Loud says. “It allowed them to still connect with children in the U.S. and a scientist to talk about what they talked about, but as well as just from the human aspect, they were able to still run their fans in this hot little schoolhouse.”
According to Salas Castro, the backpack is expanding to Latin America as part of a pilot program in Costa Rica, on an island with limited connectivity called Isla Caballo. Next, the backpack will go into Costa Rican schools, and if the pilot in that country goes well, Imcon will look at the rest of Central America. It will take a mix of public and private partnerships, in addition to working with experts and organizations who understand how to navigate each country.
“Each country and even each region—even though we have commonalities like Spanish and culture and traditions—are very different worlds,” Salas Castro says. “It’s very important to understand how to navigate that.”
While the backpack tries to connect the world, it has also returned to its originally intended purpose: emergency services.
After a pilot program with South Carolina’s Oconee County, Imcon launched Internet Backpack 2.0, designed for emergency services and first responders. It has off-grid communications through LoRaWAN, an ultralow radio frequency that can transmit over long distances. This allows rescue workers in remote areas to communicate with each other when cell and internet service is unreliable or nonexistent. The backpack can create an internet hotspot for the team leader. Team members' cell phones can connect via Bluetooth to the LoRaWAN devices, so rescuers can see where everyone is located and send real-time information—for example, telling others that a survivor was found, Loud says.
Loud hopes that the backpack serves as the internet version of a power generator, keeping up communication if the local connections fizzle out.
The biggest limitation of the backpack is the speed, as it can only provide connections to what's locally available and online. The slowest is satellite, which ranges from 384 to 760 kilobits per second. That isn’t enough to do a lot of what the internet offers today, especially if there are multiple people using the backpack.
Loud says downloading emails would work with this speed, but doing anything more data-intensive would be challenging. “Obviously, that means I’m not going to run Netflix when I’m in the tundra,” he says. He wants speed to improve with future iterations of the backpack, envisioning a satellite device small enough to fit in the backpack but with greater throughput than current hardware.
Another limitation is price. The backpack starts at $7,500, which doesn’t include the cost of internet coverage. Loud says most customers buy the $10,000 package, which includes the backpack and cellular coverage for one year, with bandwidth of about 10 gigabits per month. Satellite internet is a usage fee on top of that.
Though it can be slower and costlier than what some people in developed countries have, in places where internet access has not been feasible, the backpack provides new potential.
“If you can get people exposure to things, they can see classrooms and see how similar people are around the world,” Sirleaf says. “That benefit alone can transform the world.”