Reconnecting Dominica to the rest of the world


Nowhere is the basic human need to communicate more apparent than in a disaster situation. Whether it is to find a lost loved one, or gain access to vital supplies or information, one of the first things we reach for is our mobile phone. Often we communicate via services and news feeds we have come to know and depend on, such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, and these companies have come up with some innovative services to aid in disaster relief. Recently, to my relief, one of my relatives marked herself “safe” on Facebook in the midst of the northern California fires. We very rarely think about the mobile networks and infrastructure behind it, enabling all these services to run. But in telecom, that’s the first thing we think about. How many sites are down? Where is the main population coverage? Is the backbone network still functioning?

These are some of the critical questions that we tackle with the UN Emergency Telecom Cluster (ETC) before we launch Ericsson Response, a global initiative since 2000 in which Ericsson partners with UN agencies to provide telecom and internet support in disaster situations. We have supported dozens of disaster situations over the last 15 years, with the provision of core communications infrastructure. Given the urgency of any disasters, we must move quickly. If we have the right information at the right time, we can be on the ground in 24-48 hours. However, in order to be successful, we need to work with partners to understand the best staging areas and help conduct local telecom assessments. We need to decide the most capable volunteers to send. In many cases it’s all hands on deck. But in all cases we operate as an embedded part of a coordinated relief effort, usually orchestrated by our long term partner World Food Programme, who runs the logistics cluster and the ETC.

In the case of hurricane-ravaged Dominica, in which thousands of residents are still without homes, food, water and electricity after Hurricane Maria, our program director Brent Carbno was asked by the ETC to help lead with the assessment phase of the operations.

One of the most important first steps is getting boots on the ground to understand the local situation, and knowing what resources to deploy and when to deploy them. Getting out to the affected sites is often a challenge logistically. And restoring a network is not like simply plugging your Ethernet cable back in — it requires a physical presence on the ground, and getting equipment into a disaster zone can be challenging as well. In large scale operations like Haiti, Nepal and Dominica, while networks are being restored commercially, the Ericsson Response team’s presence might be required for six months.

Here is a quick update about how things are going in reconnecting Dominica to the rest of the world:

  • It is estimated that some 87% of cellular sites were knocked out in Dominica. It takes time to rebuild critical infrastructure. However, our first team from Ericsson Response was on the ground on 2 days after Hurricane Maria hit and our first WIDER (Wireless LAN in Disaster and Emergency Response) group in Roseau was online September 22. We connected the airport in Portsmouth – located on the east side of the island — with another VSAT and WIDER on Sept 27. Now, over 2060 registered users from over 100 organizations are connected.
  • These users come from organizations like the UN, NGOs, local police and fire departments, Digicel and Flow staff and other Dominica government agencies.
  • There are also now links to the police station, hospital, stadium (evacuation center), NGO offices and the airport (Canefield – west side) from the main location, which is the Emergency Operations Center based in the government building at Roseau.

My goal in my capacity as Head of Ericsson Response is to take action and get things done in a timely manner. It is about empowering people and teams so they can get out and make the difference that they were specially trained to do, and helping to avoid (too many) bureaucratic hurdles. Arguably, this has never been as important as it has been this year with multiple hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Maria causing catastrophic loss of life and property.

Over the next couple of weeks our Ericsson Response team will be reporting from the Caribbean as they work to restore the basic necessities and ensure that thousands of people will once again be connected with the world. We will be reporting from both Dominica and Puerto Rico, and sharing experiences on how vital the telecommunication backbone is to any relief efforts and other internet based services.

In the meantime, to support disaster relief efforts on the ground, you can donate to World Food Programme’s Emergency Relief Fund.

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