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Opinion: Mobile Mesh Networks Can Ensure Communication in Disaster

Unreliable communications make disaster recovery more dangerous, and for state, local and federal first responders, a decentralized communication system enables low-cost, long-range connectivity and situational awareness.

A newly built home, cut in half and flipped by Hurricane Dorian, in the town of Treasure Cay in the Bahamas on Tuesday.
In a matter of hours, Hurricane Dorian caused utter devastation and loss of life in the Bahamas. As health officials work tirelessly to provide care to displaced and injured residents, non-governmental organizations coordinate safe havens, food and services for evacuees, and government first responders operate search and rescue efforts, one issue is still central to the recovery efforts: the inability to communicate. 

With more than 3,000 first responders and volunteers conducting this vital work on the ground, the alarming reality is that none of these life-preserving teams can easily communicate with one another.

It’s the situation first responders face after natural disasters. Demolished cell towers and overloaded communications infrastructure lead to the inability to connect, limiting or delaying support and recovery efforts. In 2017, Hurricane Maria knocked out 88 percent of the cell sites in Puerto Rico, and nearly 69 percent of cell sites of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Hurricane Florence last year knocked out nearly 11 percent of cell sites throughout Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia; and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 knocked out at least 25 percent of the cell sites across a 10-state area.

On-the-ground reporting in the Bahamas indicates that statistical challenges of providing aid where and when it’s needed are staggering, only worsened by the state of the Bahamas’ infrastructure and the loss of communication channels. The head of operations for the Red Cross there indicated that communication among teams in the Bahamas has been sporadic and difficult, with no reliable means of communication throughout the islands of the Bahamas since Dorian hit.

Tactical radios and satellite phones, the current go-to technology for first responders, have limitations such as range, channel interference, and the fact that all position-location information must be communicated in an imprecise, verbal manner.

This gap in critical connectivity means emergency responders are not fully aware of their surroundings and are unable to easily coordinate with each other when they need to most.

On Sept. 4, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai shared a draft order that would finalize the allocation of $950 million intended to improve, expand and harden broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And while this order — up for consideration at the FCC’s Sept. 26 meeting — would incentivize the deployment of fixed broadband and 5G on the islands, these geographically constrained, heavy-infrastructure solutions alone are not enough. The reality is that such improvements, while worthwhile, take a long time and precious few communities will ever have access to the multibillion-dollar budgets needed to rebuild destroyed traditional communication infrastructure. Moreover, reconstructing these systems does not change the fact that centralized communications infrastructure suffers from an inherent central point of failure problem. In the face of the next disaster, these systems are quite likely to fail again.

We are trapped in an endless cycle of destruction and response: A storm knocks out cell towers and power stations; first responders help despite the challenges; the government allocates significant dollars to help repair and rebuild. Then the next storm hits, and we do it all again. The recurring lesson is that our centralized communications infrastructure is always critical, but never invincible, and we do not tend to think about it until it’s too late.

Municipalities, states and federal agencies can invest in decentralized communications systems, like mobile mesh networks, to ensure first responders can always communicate. Mesh networks use radio frequencies to create peer-to-peer connectivity between devices, even without access to cell, Wi-Fi and satellite. Each device or node on the network can connect directly to every other device on the network and the more nodes that are linked, the stronger the network becomes.

Following Dorian’s landfall, the Humanitarian Aid and Rescue Project (HARP), a Texas-based nonprofit, contacted our team at goTenna. Within 48 hours, they were equipped with mesh networking devices and deployed to the Bahamas to support body recovery, medical and triage efforts. Once on the ground, HARP volunteers were able to establish resilient connectivity within minutes. We have heard from HARP that these mesh networks have immensely facilitated their objectives, and that they have been the only sustainable means of connectivity on the islands at this time.

Mesh networks enable low-cost, low-power, long-range decentralized connectivity and situational awareness via radio frequencies regardless of centralized infrastructure availability. They make recovery operations smoother, more effective and safer for responders. We shouldn’t wait for another storm or natural disaster to get these capabilities into the hands of the brave men and women who put their lives on the line in the most harrowing of conditions.

Daniela Perdomo is co-founder and CEO of goTenna, a leading mobile mesh networking platform, working to decentralize connectivity and address society’s ultimate last mile. goTenna customers include all branches of the U.S. military and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as state and local public safety organizations.

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