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Mobile networks restored to hurricane-hit Caribbean islands

Emergency networking teams from the Vodafone Foundation and Télécoms Sans Frontières are working to restore mobile connectivity after the Caribbean was ravaged by Hurricane Irma

Networking engineers from the Vodafone Foundation and Télécoms Sans Frontières have sprung into action to restore network connectivity to a number of Caribbean islands that have sustained catastrophic damage from Hurricane Irma.

One of the most intense hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, at its peak Hurricane Irma caused devastation on the islands of Barbuda, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla and the Virgin Islands, with virtually every building destroyed or damaged in some cases, before hitting Cuba, the Bahamas, and Florida in the US.

To date, it is known to have caused 81 deaths, although this figure will probably rise, and is already the fourth costliest hurricane in history, inflicting $62bn worth of damage.

Télécoms Sans Frontières, the world’s first NGO dedicated to telecoms networking, was set up in the 1990s after its founders realised while working with refugees in the former Yugoslavia that being able to contact and reassure loved ones was a vital component of a relief effort, alongside basic food and medical aid.

It now deploys around the world in both conflict zones, including Syria, and disaster areas. As Hurricane Irma approached the Caribbean, it sent teams to the French overseas department of Guadeloupe ahead of the storm, from where they were able to deploy to Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy on 10 September, following Irma’s passage.

On arrival in Saint Martin, where around 60% of buildings are now completely uninhabitable, Télécoms Sans Frontières worked through the night to establish satellite connections at the island’s coordination centre.

With terrestrial communications still unstable, satellite communications are now helping relief workers to coordinate medical evacuations, delivery of material and human assistance, and emergency accommodation provision.

The charity is also in discussions with local authorities to add further connections to the temporary network, which will include access for island residents.

The Vodafone Foundation’s team has been working alongside Télécoms Sans Frontières to deploy its  nstant Network to restore mobile connectivity, and its Instant Charge technology to provide free public device charging facilities, on Guadeloupe, Saint Barthélemy and Saint Martin.

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“Through our Instant Network programme, we are able to deploy our people and our technology to provide communications support at a critical time. Ensuring people are able to communicate in the aftermath of a natural disaster is crucial, both for the coordination of aid and to enable those affected to reconnect with family and friends,” said Vodafone Foundation director Andrew Dunnett.

The foundation is staffed entirely by volunteers – all of them Vodafone employees – who can deploy a small mobile network carried in just four suitcases in minutes to provide 3G network connectivity. It consists of an antenna, a foldable mast, an industrial computer and a base transceiver station to provide cellular coverage over a thousand metre radius.

It has also sent two Instant Charge outdoor mobile charging stations, which can support 66 devices simultaneously, and its Instant Classroom Xtra, a “digital school in a box” that, in this case, it is repurposing to create an emergency cyber café, where locals can borrow tablets, charge their devices and connect to free Wi-Fi.

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