How technology companies are restoring connectivity in Puerto Rico

A flooded area in Carolina, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the island. Photo by: Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos / U.S. Department of Agriculture

SAN FRANCISCO — Over the next few weeks, Facebook employees will join forces with NetHope, a collaboration of leading international nongovernmental organizations, to assess the state of connectivity in areas impacted by Hurricane Maria.

“With 90 percent of cell towers on the island out of service, people can't get in touch with their loved ones,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post last week, announcing that the Silicon Valley-based company would be sending members of its connectivity team to Puerto Rico to deliver emergency telecommunications systems. “And it's harder for rescue workers to coordinate relief efforts,” he added.

It is in Facebook’s interest to make sure as many people as possible can access the internet and use its services, and it is one of several technology companies that is stepping up after Hurricane Maria with support that is core to both business and philanthropic efforts. With growing recognition of the idea that information is aid, disaster responders are expanding their efforts to address not only how they can connect during a crisis, but also how they can bring affected communities back online. Technology companies are reestablishing communications as fast as possible for people who have been without power, Wi-Fi signal, and cellular service, a situation that has left them unable to connect with each other and has kept those off the island in the dark regarding the extent of the damage.

“In any emergency, we start by thinking about communications capabilities, because communications is the lifeline for emergency response,” Frank Schott, vice president of global programs at NetHope, told Devex. “The emergency responders can’t get good water or shelter to where they need to go without communications capabilities, and communities are far more able to help themselves if they can communicate with each other and emergency responders.”

Some of the alternatives to traditional internet and phone services that disaster responders often resort to, such as devices communicating over mesh networks, are not an option because they require Wi-Fi routers, which need power, which is hard to come by on the island. Tesla is sending hundreds of its Powerwall battery systems, which can be paired with solar panels, providing an alternative source of electricity that might power connectivity solutions, as well as the devices to use them. In the meantime, the devastated power and communications infrastructure is further stalling recovery efforts, which have been so delayed that various interventions are underway, including Oxfam International taking the rare step of responding to an American disaster.

Rapid deployment solutions tend to get their connectivity from satellites. In addition to working with partners such as Cisco and Ericsson to get the existing communications infrastructure back on its feet, NetHope is shipping and deploying expensive satellite phones; VSAT, or Very Small Aperture Terminal, the dishes that tend to spring up after disasters; and BGAN, or Broadband Global Area Network, which uses portable terminals. While there have been amazing advances in lightweight point-to-point solutions — meaning people can extend signals quickly with little or no technical experience — the race between technology companies working on satellite connectivity is what will allow responders to use some of the same solutions they deploy in emergencies for the longer term, Schott said.

“The massive availability of affordable satellite communications capabilities from someone or multiple parties will make us start embracing some of the VSAT-type solutions much more easily. It’s just so expensive,” he said. “The cost to put a VSAT into Puerto Rico for three years, if that’s how long it takes, is astronomical. But if satellite connectivity becomes widely available at affordable prices, that’s a win for everyone.”

In the hours following an emergency, NetHope does a flash appeal to its network, asking for cash to put the wheels in motion. Microsoft has been a consistent supporter of its disaster preparedness work, not only following a crisis but also between emergencies, which puts NetHope in a better position to respond when disaster strikes. Microsoft has donated more than $35 million in software and technology services to humanitarian organizations since January 2016.

“We are currently sponsoring NetHope in their preparedness work, not just through the provision of TV White Space equipment and initial training, but also through the funding of training and rehearsals over the next three years,” said Cameron Birge, humanitarian response manager at Microsoft Philanthropies, in an email to Devex. “Many response agencies struggle to raise resources that allow them to practice and rehearse during non-disaster situations. With our preparedness relationship, we are providing resources to strengthen NetHope’s response capacity.”

Since Hurricane Maria, the company has made more than $1 million in cash grants, employee matching funds, and technology and services to support organizations participating in response and recovery. It has also activated its Disaster Service teams to provide IT engineering assistance to responders and is working with network providers to assess whether its technology might help them restore connectivity.

Google and Facebook have each committed $1.5 million to relief efforts and are sending teams of employees. NetHope vets volunteers before they go, taking a special interest in search and rescue or military experience, marketing and communications skills, and network engineers who can assist in areas such as restoring connectivity. Where these technology companies can provide real value is in areas where they have assets that no one else can provide, with both Google and Facebook bringing their connectivity solutions ranging from drones to giant stratospheric balloons, as X, the moonshot factory of Google’s Parent Company Alphabet, did with Project Loon in Peru.

In addition to sending volunteers to Puerto Rico, Facebook will be providing support to internet service providers and local mobile network operators to restore their services. Meanwhile Facebook and other technology partners are working with NetHope to re-establish short-term communications solutions as quickly as possible, in many cases via satellite connectivity. Facebook is also sharing some of the same data it has used to map the global population with its disaster response partners.

“Data about cell phone towers and whether they're up or not is useful for us because we can say, ‘Here’s some population density that was connected before the hurricane and is now totally disconnected,’” Schott said of the data Facebook is sharing with NetHope. “This can guide our work and where we go, and can also tell us that if we put in temporary solutions and later they become active or operational, we can decommission temporary solutions and take them somewhere else.”

The technology companies NetHope is partnering with in Puerto Rico each bring different core competencies, Schott explained. For example, Cisco deploys its tactical operations team, an in-house emergency response unit dedicated to disaster response, whereas other companies lend experts for short-term projects where they can leverage their skillsets. But while these companies are competitors, when disaster strikes, they all seem to understand that collaboration is key.

“As you look across the tech world to the companies that have crisis response functions, they all kind of look a little bit different based on whatever the organization does or what their corporate mandates are, but what you do find is there is close collaboration across these companies,” Rakesh Bharania, who worked with Cisco’s TacOps team before joining Apple, told Devex previously. “You don’t really see the competitive marketplace influences happening during a crisis. It’s a very small community of people who do technology in emergencies and in crisis environments and we all kind of know each other from going to the same conferences and meetings and we run into each other in the field. So the trust relationship is definitely there.”

Still, logistics of the Hurricane Maria response have been particularly challenging, Schott said, with NetHope coordinating not only with private sector partners but also the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster of the United Nations and the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure the collective response community who cares about communities is targeting the right places and not duplicating investments,” he said.

While NetHope is committed to an approach it describes as “building back better,” this may be a multi-year task, Schott said, explaining that the needs are not just repairing but rebuilding.

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About the author

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.