Rebuilding after a perfect storm

30 October 2017 | Natalie Bannerman

As the world is left reeling from three of the most powerful storms to cross the Atlantic, we round-up some of the biggest relief campaigns taking place in the telco sector and what we can do to help

p30We already know their names: Harvey, Irma and Maria - each one more destructive than the last. 

Storm Harvey brought an unprecedented 40 inches of rain during its four-day period over Texas. The city of Houston was the worst hit and is home to a number of companies in the telecoms sector, from carriers to operators, and of them approximately 40 are colocation data centres. These include: Verizon, Level 3, Equinix, Fibertown, Quasar, Data Foundry, Carrier-4, CyrusOne and SoftLayer (owned by IBM) to name a few.

Hurricane Irma, the first of the two Category 5 storms, saw 50+ inches over Florida and north eastern Caribbean, particularly Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands. Florida is home to roughly 100 data centres as well as mobile network operators AT&T and Verizon. 

While Hurricane Maria, the last Cat 5 storm, saw more than 30 inches of rain hit Puerto Rico, Dominica and the north eastern Caribbean, affecting operators like Cable & Wireless and data centres like Smart Networks and Caribe.Net.

With hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, islands all over the Caribbean and states across the US are still struggling to recover but so is the telecoms sector, which we rely so heavily on for connectivity. 

Hurricane Harvey

While staff slept in cots and worked round the clock to deliver these mission-critical services, they continued to combat the mass flooding and damage caused by Harvey.

Verizon was among the first companies to release a statement updating its customers on the condition of its facility and services, while Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman & CEO, pledged $10 million in support of the community saying: 

"Verizon is committed to working alongside disaster relief partners to help return a sense of normalcy to residents and restore the areas impacted by the storm. Houston and South Texas are vital to the fabric of America and we want to be on the front lines of the rebuilding efforts."

Digital Realty in a statement said: "The company’s Houston data centre facility continues to maintain 100% uptime amid the historic rains and flooding brought by Hurricane Harvey", adding that all its Houston based employees are safe and accounted for and partly in thanks to the robustness of its building. 

Equinix it seems was well prepared in advance for the storm, having in place "an on-site team of six personnel in the data centre throughout the duration of the storm … with food, water, sleeping cots and other amenities for the team", said an Equinix spokesperson, adding that customers can and have been able to access the building but caution is advised. 

Level 3, which has three buildings in the Houston area, reportedly had a few "isolated incidents" affecting a small number of customers but are resolving them "as quickly as possible" but that limited access to affected areas may cause a delay in network repairs. They too prepared ahead of time with teams of engineers and employees working through the storm to monitoring the facilities and its equipment. 

Data Foundry’s CTO, Edward Henigin, said that not only was the company prepared before the storm but it was prepared at the point of construction, boasting: "Houston 2 is a purpose-built facility designed to withstand Category 5 hurricane wind speeds. We chose this site to construct Houston 2 due to its lower risk of flooding. We also elevated the site an additional three feet during construction."

Hurricane Irma

p29 680In response to Hurricane Irma, which greatly affected the areas of Florida, Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands, the New Jersey Fiber Exchange (NJFX), announced urgent work in collaboration with major carriers to expedite the installation of infrastructure to support a major connectivity hub in jeopardy from power outages caused by the storm. 

Gil Santaliz, CEO of NJFX, commented on the project saying: "The way we communicate worldwide is all through the Miami, Puerto Rico and New York City gateways. If Miami went down, the only way to communicate to Europe and South America is through Puerto Rico. We are in contact right now with major carriers that supply connectivity to large, international companies and are looking to keep networks up and running."  

Verizon also responded by offering those in the state of Georgia (one of the main states to be hit by Irma) with its data relief offer, which included giving pay monthly customers talk, text and data relief, while prepaid customers received an extra 3GB of data.

Other carriers in the region were also quick to attempt to restore connectivity once the storm had passed. Comcast, which owns the subsidiary Xfinity in the area, deployed hundreds of additional crews from places like Chicago, Broward and West Palm Beach in Miami-Dade. "We have an action plan for every single node," said its spokeswoman.

On behalf of its telecoms brand u-Verse, AT&T said: "We have brought in more than 100 additional technicians from outside of Florida and will continue to bring additional resources as needed. As power companies and other repair crews continue their restoration efforts, we are deploying additional power equipment where needed to maintain and restore wireline service. We currently have more than 460 wireline facilities on battery power and more than 235 on generator for power."

Undoubtedly, it’s the island of Barbuda that bore the brunt of Irma’s wrath. The Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda, Gaston Browne, described it as "uninhabitable", and even Hollywood actor Robert De Niro described it as 'literally rubble’. In response, mobile network provider, Digicel, was quick to mobilise less than a week after it made landfall and started restoring communications straight away. 

"The Digicel team is ready and able. We have been ready to get to work to restore service in Barbuda … and now we have our opportunity. We are committed to helping Barbudans rebuild after the devastation caused by Irma and this will be an important step forward," said Vanessa Slowey, CEO of Digicel Caribbean and Central America.

Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) were quick on the ground, offering door-to-door personalised telephone calls to residents affected on the island of Saint Martin and in Saint Barthélemey. They were also quick to set up a Wifi zone in Anse Caille, allowing citizens to use their smartphones to access the internet, connect with social media and to communicate with loved ones.

Hurricane Maria

Once again Verizon did not hesitate to offer support to the relief efforts taking place in Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands by pledging $4 million to the cause. Commenting on the donation, Lowell McAdam, Verizon chairman & CEO, said: "We have a strong connection to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands through our customers and employees. And while we don’t offer direct service to the Caribbean, we are working with federal agencies and our roaming partners to provide additional assistance during this crisis."

TSF, the telecommunications NGO, dispatched emergency teams with satellite phones to ensure critical communications once Maria had passed. On the island of Dominica, TSF deployed a team to the town of Portsmouth, where a Wifi zone was set up via satellite internet in Portsmouth town centre at the offices of the community radio station. In addition, TSF deployed a number of ambulant Wifi services that using a 4x4 and satellite internet antenna, travel from village to village providing much needed connectivity to internet and satellite based telephone services. 

AT&T reported that it has temporary cell sites operational in the following locations in Puerto Rico: Rincon Pueblo, Humacao, Rio Grande, Ponce Cursillo, Quebradillas, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Manati, Yauco, Cayey, Mayaguez Mesa, San German, Fajardo, Guayama and Vega Baja. These sites alone process more than 400,000 calls and 1.5 million texts a day but overall the company is processing more than 9 million calls and 5 million texts a day on its network in Puerto Rico.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved a $77 million to fund repairs of communication networks in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The FCC said it had voted unanimously to provide up to seven months’ worth of support from its Universal Service fund, in an attempt to restore "essential communications services as quickly as possible".

"Going forward, service providers will have greater flexibility in how they use universal service funding to restore and rebuild their networks. And since we’ve adopted this item so expeditiously, carriers will be able to elect to have accelerated payments begin flowing this month. This should be a boost for both wireless and wireline providers who are trying to restore connectivity," said FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

Google owner Alphabet also recently had its application to provide emergency mobile service to Puerto Rico via balloons approved by the FCC. Its Project Loon, which started in 2013, uses solar-powered, high-altitude balloons to provide internet service in remote regions. Further to this, the Puerto Rican governor, Ricardo Rossello, said in a Twitter post that he had a "great initial conversation" with Tesla CEO, Elon Muck and "teams are now talking; exploring opportunities" over sending battery installers to region to try and bring back power which is in addition to its $250,000 donation. 

How you can get involved in the efforts 

Télécoms Sans Frontières 

To support them in in their mission critical work please head over to www.tsfi.org/en/donate-on-line. Alternatively for any organisations who’d like to become a long-term partner of the organisation please go to: 

www.tsfi.org/en/partners/joinourpartners

Net Hope

Net Hope’s Emergency Response team is currently on the front lines of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. The technology and telecoms based NGO is fundraising for the cause, so please head over to donatenow.networkforgood.org to support them and their work. 

Emergency Telecommunications Cluster

This global network of organisations provide inter-agency communications services in humanitarian emergencies. The ETC were on the front lines in the latest batch of storms. Head over to: www.etcluster.org to see how you can help.

Cable & Wireless

The company has launched the Cable & Wireless Charitable Foundation. Please get involved with its 'Text To Donate’ campaign, whereby Caribbean customers can pledge a $1 donation to aid the relief effort through the foundation by texting 'GIVE’ to 2300.