Dust, Downpours and a Digital Lifeline

June 18, 2024

Bringing the internet to the Burning Man desert

Interview with Mei Zhou

It may seem counter-intuitive; bringing mobile connectivity technology to an event that is all about disconnecting from the modern world. But when Mei Zhou took the Dejero GateWay 211 into the Nevada desert, she had no idea that it would become a critical life-line for Burning Man participants who found themselves stranded after unprecedented rainfall.

Mei shares her experience at Burning Man with Dejero:

Dejero: What was your motivation to attend Burning Man?

Mei: It wasn’t necessarily on my radar to bring connectivity tech with me when I signed up to the Burning Man in 2023. I was going for my own personal experience: to find inspiration for creativity and think outside the box, interact with incredible art, bond with like-minded people, and to challenge myself to live one week completely off grid for the entire week and cook for 80 people at my camp with only the most sustainable methods.

Mei selfie front of some pots cooking at Burning Man

Dejero: Why did you decide to test connectivity at the event?

Mei: My curious nature and my passion to explore new technology compelled me to take a tactical mobile connectivity kit along, to find out if my camp could get internet in the middle of the desert (seeing as I was going there anyway). I had all sorts of questions: Would people even want to use it? And if they were to use it, what would they use it for? It was the perfect opportunity to take a personal endeavor and fold it into what I do for work.

On ‘my own time’, and thanks to the support of Dell Technologies OEM Solution partners, Dejero and GuardStack, I deployed the mobile connectivity kit which was outfitted with a Dejero GateWay 211 network aggregation device that can effectively blend my Starlink satellite connection.

Mei beside an EnGo providing connectivity

Dejero: How was the tech received, considering people were looking to ‘disconnect’ from the modern world?

Mei: I was apprehensive that my fellow camp mates  would object to the thought of having internet connectivity on hand, but no sooner had we arrived, that news of a minor crisis unfolded; we realized that the jumbo cooking pot that was essential for feeding our 80-strong Jungle Oddity camp, had been forgotten. [Plus, I had volunteered as one of the camp chefs for the duration of the Burning Man week and had been planning these meals for months; figuring out the most sustainable cooking process that would preserve water, save energy and minimize food waste].

As we were in the middle of a desert, people were battling to get cell connectivity with the towers being far away. This was the first time that an internet connection was called for, so with the help from our camp mates, I immediately set up my tactical mobile connectivity kit and created a Wi-Fi connection so that contact could be made with camp members who hadn’t left yet and can bring the jumbo pot. 

Word of this connection to the outside world soon spread outside of our camp to others who wanted to use the mobile internet to touch base with their families and friends, and it became an unexpected communication hub for many throughout the Burning Man week.

People relaxing on their phones

Dejero: How did the Dejero GateWay help when ‘crisis’ hit with the unprecedented weather?

Mei: We had no idea that the heavy rain was on its way. It swamped Black Rock City and the 70,000+ people that built it were caught up in ankle-deep mud with little resources to carry them through an extra two days as the routes out of the site were closed. 

We went into crisis mode; What's needed? Do we have enough food & water? Can we keep everyone warm and dry? Do we have emergency plan B for waste management? Can we cook for everybody in our camp? Can I provide internet connectivity for everyone should they need to reach out urgently back home?

The Dejero GateWay served as backhaul connectivity with its built in Smart Blending Technology, that aggregates diverse IP networks – in this case using three SIM cards and Starlink satellite connectivity. It combined all these available sources into a single connection and created a Wi-Fi access point for our camp and the wider Burning Man community. 

We hadn’t anticipated the critical communication that the solution served for everyone around us when dust turned to mud and the unprecedented torrential rainfall rolled in. The internet connectivity the kit provided allowed people to check in with families, reschedule their travel, readjust wedding plans, inform pet sitters and monitor the weather. 

The harsh environment and conditions also provided the ultimate test site for the resilience of the kit, and it performed seamlessly despite the heavy rain, wind and dust.

Cyclist in the middle of a dust storm

Dejero: How did people cope with being stranded in the desert?

Mei: This is where our community really came together to help each other. On kitchen duty and for my role as head chef, we made provisions to cook for 80 people two days in a row while we were waiting for weather conditions to improve. It made me so happy to brighten everyone’s spirits through the meals we made. And the ability to connect with the outside world through the Dejero/Guarstack/Dell solution re-balanced people’s stress-levels, both for those unexpectedly stuck in the desert and for those waiting to hear from their loved ones at home.

A core principle of the Burning Man is for ‘the community to value creative cooperation and collaboration. It strives to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction’1. I think that the tactical mobile connectivity kit played its part in today’s world, and when you’re following your life’s passions, technology will likely play some part or another.

Dejero: How was your overall personal experience?

Throughout my time at Burning Man 2023, I experienced whiteout dust storms, gorgeous sunsets, blue super moon, incredible arts, a memorable playa wedding, amazing music, fire dancing, rain, mud and 8.5 hours of Exodus. I made many new friends, engaged in fun and serious conversations, and shared human stories. 

I enjoyed every moment of this incredible experience and it was fantastic to be able to provide a communication hub when people needed it most.

Burning Man at night with a laser light show

The new GateWay 3220 powered by Dell Technologies, learn more

 1The 10 Principles of Burning Man | Burning Man

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