Telecoms in the face of a disaster

A discussion on the vulnerable nature of telecoms service when it might be needed most.
Those who regular track happenings in the Caribbean would be aware that Dominica (that is the Commonwealth of Dominica, as opposed to the Dominican Republic) was devastated by Tropical Storm Erika which hit the island last week. Tropical Storms are quite common during the hurricane season, which officially runs from June to November. For Dominica, which had been experiencing drought conditions over the past few months like many Caribbean countries, the storm would have been welcomed to bring much needed rain.

However, with the passage of Tropical Storm Erika and within 12 hours, the island recorded over 15 inches (38 centimetres) of rainfall. In its immediate wake, 20 persons were confirmed dead and 35 persons were reported missing (Source: BBC), There was also widespread flooding, resulting in considerable damage to homes, properties, road and utility networks, including those for telecoms.

As expected, Dominica has been receiving aid, and other pledges of support from its sister Caribbean countries, plus donor and aid agencies. Regarding telecoms, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has deployed to Dominica emergency telecoms equipment, such as satellite phones, Broadband Global Area Networks, solar chargers and laptops, to support relief efforts (Source: IU).

The vulnerability of telecoms networks

Based on the latest publicly available data, Dominica possesses relatively a well-developed telecoms sector. As at the end of 2014, mobile/cellular subscription density was 127.45 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, and its fixed line and broadband Internet subscription densities were 24.33 and 15.76 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, respectively. Consequently, and in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Erika, the announcement of the need for emergency communication support might have been a bit of a surprise.

However, without electricity and with damage likely to mobile/cellular towers and other elements of the telecoms infrastructure, the typical end-user devices, be they high-end or basic, are all rendered useless. It therefore ought to cause us to wonder about how vulnerable our telecoms networks truly are when they might be needed most – during and following a disaster or other emergency situation. In fact, one of the arguments made for getting telecoms device, especially a mobile or portable one in the first place, is to allow us to communicate during an emergency. However, as Tropical Strom Erika has shown in Dominica, as would have been the experience in other countries, is that the telecoms services are often not available during exigent circumstances.

So what is the back up for telecoms?

When making our preparations in anticipation of a storm or hurricane, we might be vigilant to ensure that we have candles, kerosene lamps and a coal stove (also called a coal pot) on hand, should the power go off, and to have adequate water stored, in the event there is no water, or what is supplied ought not to be ingested. However, what back up do we have should telecoms service not be available?

Tech savvy individuals could consider two-way radios, and for example, become Citizen Band (CB) operators, or Amateur Radio (ham) operators. However, such options might be better suited for those who want wish to engage in them as hobbies, as the cost of equipment and expertise needed may not justify their use only during times of disaster.

On the other hand and for the Average Joe, the most viable option would be a battery powered transistor radio, which traditionally all Caribbean would have had. Though it only allows one-way communication, it could keep listeners informed of the latest news and developments in their area, and thus in a position to determine how best to act as the situation unfolds.


Image credit:  Wikipedia


1 Comment

  • Thank you, Michele Marius, for mentioning in your blog Dominica’s plight, re: the destruction caused by tropical storm, Erika, last Thursday, August, 27th, 2015.

    Indeed, besides the usual disruption to infrastructure and utilities, one of the most inconvenient disruptions was the loss of telecommunications services, more specifically the mobile phone service.

    When news of the severity of storm broke on Facebook, with Prime Minster, Roosevelt Skerritt posting images of the Roseau river bursting it’s banks and threatening to wash away the newly-built Chinese friendship bridge, my wife and I tried in vain to make contact with family and loved ones back home.

    To our dismay, we could not even reach land line subscribers, not to mention mobile phone users. I would take a least 2 days before we were able to reach any one by phone.

    Just last night, at the Prime minister’s 6th press briefing to update the media and the population on his government’s response to the disaster, telecommunications authorities revealed that telephone services had been restored to 98% of the island.

    But, to respond to your suggestions of alternative modes of telecommunications, I note your concerns over ordinary resident acquiring ham/amateur radios, and all of the expense to purchase equivalents and the training needed to communicate on the air.

    Both my wife and I are Foundation Licence holders here in the UK. As foundation licence holders we are permitted to communicate with other ham/amateur radio operators on various assigned frequency band on 2 metre and 70cm metre bands, and at specific power transmissions. Indeed, it was ham radio operator, Fred white, who alerted the international community in 1979 following the devastation of hurricane David on the island using his ham/amateur radio equipment. So I would suggest that at least one operator in a village, or at least the village council or police station should be fully trained in amateur radio principles and basics.

    Of course that means that all equipment, batteries etc, should be carefully stored and undamaged for use in the event of an emergency and a telecommunications black-out.

    As regards mobile phone users, it might be wise to purchase several extra batteries for your phone, should it be impossible to charge your phone, and so that you could check for any available phone signal.

    It would seem wise too, that a greater effort be made to introduce satellite phones along side mobile phones in disaster prone areas like Dominica. At least, a direct line of sight with and overhead satellite would almost be available, if one is not buried in a collapsed building for instance.

    Other sensible suggestions would be to keep your phones and accessories dry, by keeping them in some sort of waterproof container.

    Finally, not only in the telecommunications sectors but all areas of Dominica’s development needs to re examined in light of the islands frequent damage from such storms, and also the looming threat of some sort of volcanic event. Civil engineers and other stakeholders need to realise that we need to build our cities and towns and villages with these risk factors in mind, and work to mitigating as much damage as possible to property and life.

    I guess time will tell, if we have learnt our lessons in time for the next major geological or meteorological even that visits our shores.

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