Rhode Island, Tech Companies Work to Bridge Caribbean Internet Gap After Storms

This year's hurricane season was especially vicious to the Caribbean islands, knocking out power and Internet for millions. The state government of Rhode Island, as well as Microsoft and other tech companies, are stepping in to help.

by Brian O'Connor, The Virgin Islands Daily News / November 27, 2017
People work surrounded by debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Virgin Islands. (AP/Gabi Gonzalez)

(TNS) –– ST. THOMAS — In the aftermath of the destructive 2017 hurricane season — which formally ends on Thursday — technology companies have moved in to field test a variety of new technologies.

In Puerto Rico, Tesla has deployed its solar and battery power systems and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has obtained permission to use a balloon-based system to provide cell service to rural areas damaged by the hurricanes, though a spokesman for X, the subdivision of Alphabet developing the balloon project, said the project has not been deployed in the Virgin Islands.

In Virgin Islands, as well as in Puerto Rico, Microsoft has successfully deployed something called TV white space technology to provide wireless Internet.

On the broadcast dial, traditional television channels are separated by bands of white space to prevent one channel from bleeding into another. The white space bands between channels are themselves separate television channels that can be used to broadcast information.

The resulting networks can work better than cellphones in some circumstances, according to a Microsoft white paper authored in July.

“This available spectrum is uniquely suited for delivering broadband to rural areas because it can carry communications over far greater distances and penetrate through walls and other obstacles than cellular and other spectrum bands,” the paper reads in part. “Because of these unique characteristics, technologies leveraging TV white spaces are sometimes referred to as ‘Super Wi-Fi.’”

Microsoft’s initiative — titled “Airband” — has been successfully used to broadcast Internet to sections of rural America, and the company hopes to use the system to balance out a lack of broadband Internet access in the United States, according to the white paper.

After Hurricane Irma blew through the northern end of the territory on Sept. 6, followed by Maria’s southward trajectory on Sept. 20, a Microsoft sales representative based in Puerto Rico approached the V.I. Bureau of Information Technology Director Angelo Riddick about potentially using Airband to get Internet to hard-to-reach sections of the territory.

The move was part of a larger push by Microsoft involving both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, according to a blog post written by Shelley McKinley, the company’s general manager for Technology and Responsibility. The company is partnered with NetHope, an international organization which serves as an incubator for Internet-based projects in the developing world.

McKinley used the acronym “TVWS” to refer to the project.

“TVWS technology is helping people in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands reconnect with people outside their immediate communities,” McKinley wrote. “In addition to Utuado, we have TVWS sites up and running in Humacao, Puerto Rico; and in the U.S. Virgin Islands in St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas. And, TVWS will soon be working in Barranquitas and San Lorenzo in Puerto Rico. Our hope is that TVWS broadband connections will hasten the recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, making it a little less difficult for people in the region to communicate and to recover.”

The reality has been a little more pragmatic, Riddick said. The government has been able to use the technology to direct Internet to a V.I. Planning and Natural Resources office on St. Croix, and they have put up a station on Blue Mountain to potentially expand the service.

“We did prove the concept, so it does work,” he said.

The way the technology is used in the territory, the white-space based Internet is beamed to local routers, which in turn serve as hot spots for nearby users, Riddick said. Like any newly implemented technology, there are some challenges, Riddick said.

“The challenge to it is the bandwidth is really limited — typically 2 megs per,” he said. “It’s really slow.”

The limit for an Internet connection to be considered broadband is 25 megabits per second, or roughly 12 times faster than the speeds the government has seen over the white space project.

Microsoft’s project is not the only technological deployment the government is trying to work around hurricane damage, Riddick said. The issue is frequently the federal regulations governing communications, which can sometimes slow the speed of deployment for new technologies, as well as the logistics of getting new devices installed in the territories, Riddick said.

“I think they are,” Riddick said, of technology companies viewing recovery as an opportunity to test new technologies. “But the logistics pipeline and the political pipeline is probably slowing them down.”

For example, Riddick said he recently received an unanticipated phone call from the Ocean State.

“The state of Rhode Island called, and said ‘We need to ship some satellite to you at no cost,’” he said.

Rhode Island isn’t sending satellites, but rather dishes used to receive satellite Internet, which can range in speed from 4 kilobits per second up to 16 megabits per second.

“We expect to be getting those within the next two weeks,” he said.

©2017 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.