From Devastation To Communication Innovation

If Hurricanes Irma and Maria turned the town of Coral Bay upside down, the recovery effort has put things together again, in a different way.

The familiar fire station, next to Guy Benjamin Community Center, has an abandoned look. A lonesome sign points to Calabash Boom as the new — temporary — emergency center. Towering piles of debris have turned the green expanse of the Moravian Church Field into a temporary landfill. Giant earth movers scrape the grass down to the mud as new truckloads arrive.

Around the corner, on Route 107, piles of composite poles gleam graphite gray like pencils on the first day of school. Utility teams from VI Water and Power Authority and the visiting team from BBC Electrical hoist men in buckets to set spools of new lines in place. And at the old Town and Country real estate office, the tech team of Rob Tutton and Matt Gyuraki show resident Wayne Clendinen how to log on to the newly installed Internet hot spot.

It was their first stop of the day, on their way to the next installation at the Fire Service. The Disaster Immediate Response Team, working with Daryl Wade from viNGN and off-island benefactors, helped move the rudiments into place.

Tutton and Gyuraki are part of the Love City Community Network, working to install modular routers from the Ubiquiti Network. If the system of briefcase-sized routers, energized with solar power work, residents and businesses should have access to cell phone signal and some wi-fi.

If the system works the way it’s designed, the communication links occur when routers bounce relay signal between them at strategic points. “Everything is little hops, skips and jumps, with solar panels and solar arrays. We don’t have any power, so we’re creating our own,” Tutton said.

Nick Harland, the guy who helped out with the alternative power support, described how the system works. “To reach Coral Bay, we have a complete solar power system,” he said. The system is made up of solar panels, storage containers which have batteries, solar charge controllers, and inverters. It’s all self-contained.”

The signal distribution system travels from Cruz Bay, using point-to-point radios, from the west to Bordeaux and down to Coral Bay, Harland said.

Among the very glad to see the hotspot up and running was Michelle Branson in the office at Coral Bay Community Council. Since Hurricane Irma rampaged through east St. John, Branson has watched the struggle to restore communications from the balcony at Town and Country’s building across the road to the roof of the fire station.

After crowds line up for relief supplies dispersed at day’s end, technicians climbed the firehouse roof to install different cell phone receivers. They worked, Branson said, but only so much.

“It’s been difficult. It’s been a struggle to communicate, to have to go to town (Cruz Bay) to hopefully communicate on the Internet,” she said.

When Tutton and Gyuraki appeared and began installing the hot spot Thursday, Branson said she thanked them and shook their hands.

On Friday, she sat at her desk, sending emails to CBCC Executive Director Sharon Coldren, off island on a visit to the U.S. mainland.

Coral Bay residents can expect that all connections may not sail smoothly, as has been seen in Cruz Bay. Service there has been spotty at times, as those who rely on connectivity can attest.

As modular Internet appears in the east, traditional Internet provider Viya (formerly Innovative) is making its way up Centerline Road. A technical supervisor for the St. John line crew said restoration of phone, cable and Internet lines should begin next week. The company is relying on the placement of mobile cell-on-wheels devices to channel the signal that was once relayed by the communications tower at Bordeaux.

When they reach, Viya may find itself in a three-way competition between Ubiquiti and a new satellite Internet service taking root in Coral Bay. Promoter Jack Brown says his service promises to deliver 55 megabytes per second on the download, three megabytes uploading.

Thirteen customers have already signed up for the new service, called V.I. SatNet.
“As long as the satellite doesn’t fall from the sky you’ll have lightning fast, reliable Internet,” Brown said.

The service is described as a fifth-generation Hughes Net satellite system. Installation of existing contract holders is expected to begin shortly, with priority given to two local businesses seeking business infrastructure and to wi-fi hot spots for their customers.

“We’re going to try to give those businesses priority, not only for the business but to give the public options,” Brown said.