Hurricane Season officially starts in two weeks, and Love City Community Network (LCCN) is doing everything they can to harden their emergency network and develop new technology to improve communications following a storm.
A prototype of one of their latest inventions, an emergency mobile hotspot, will be on display at the Hurricane Preparedness Fair to be held at Frank Powell Park in Cruz Bay from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 18 and 19.
The emergency mobile hotspot is a device volunteers can deploy in neighborhoods if a major hurricane hits, roads are blocked by debris and mudslides, communication towers go down, and cell phone and internet connectivity are lost. As anyone who was on St. John during Hurricane Irma can tell you, it has happened already, and it can happen again.
“After Hurricane Irma, everyone had to go to Cruz Bay where there was some signal at Ronnie’s Pizza,” said Ivan Jacobs, LCCN’s outreach and communications director. “After a while, they could go to the BMV parking lot or the Marketplace, and eventually at the Fire Station at Coral Bay. The new mobile hotspots will be located in a strategic way for wide distribution. People won’t have to go miles to get online.”
The mobile hotspots, which will be solar powered and have a “beefy battery,” could provide connectivity in areas that become inaccessible following a storm or other disaster.
In response to an emergency, trained volunteers will pull out their local mobile hotspot, aim it at one of LCCN’s distribution points (also known as “sectors,”) and within minutes people will be able to get on line – assuming the network is up and running.
It’s a pretty good bet that the LCCN network will be running. On May 13, when the power went out on St. John at around 9:30 p.m., 15 of 16 distribution points continued to operate.
“The one on Gifft Hill went down, but now that we know about the problem, we can fix it,” said Jacobs, who said hardening the network is LCCN’s top priority.
During Sunday night’s power outage, anyone with a NanoBeam and a source of power (solar power or a generator) was able to maintain internet connectivity.
A NanoBeam is a small, round object that essentially functions like a radio and gets its signal from one of several antennas set up by the Love City Community Network. NanoBeams have to be within line of sight to antennas on rooftops and high points around St. John.
There are now almost 450 NanoBeams set up at homes and businesses on the island. NanoBeams, which can be ordered through Amazon for about $100, must be installed by one of LCCN’s technicians. Although the waiting list for installation used to be long, LCCN now has enough staff so that the wait time is about a week, Jacobs said.
LCCN now is also in the early stage of developing a small, hand-held device that will include a power source and a NanoBeam that can be used anywhere. Their goal is to make it affordable and portable enough to fit in residents’ hurricane kits. It is designed to run in homes or other locations without generators or other sources of power.
“We don’t have a name for it yet,” said Jacobs. “For now we’re calling it a ‘Nano Pod.’”
The Nano Pod should not be confused with the Power Pod, another device developed by LCCN for emergency communications which is now in use throughout their network. The Power Pod “has a ton of power but is not super mobile,” said Jacobs. “It comes in a case with wheels and can be moved around by a couple of people.”
The Power Pod is designed to run an entire “sector site” or distribution point for data. Built to be taken down if a storm approaches and then quickly redeployed when conditions allow, it includes antennas and batteries that can keep it operating for three days without further attention.
LCCN engineers now are working on their fourth version of the Power Pod for home use, one that includes a water pump to keep water flowing in addition to powering lights and internet connectivity.
LCCN is still working on its primary mission, to bring internet connectivity to people who haven’t had it since Hurricane Irma destroyed service from major network providers, or perhaps never had service because of their remote location. LCCN plans to soon put up distribution sites on the East End of St. John and on Ajax Peak that will provide internet access to people in Calabash Boom, St. Quacco and Zimmerman, the Carolina Valley, and other parts of Coral Bay.
“We’re not done until we get service to all those ridges. There’s still a very real need out there,” said Jacobs.
On its Facebook page, LCCN recently posted a picture with the caption, “Can you see your house?”
“If you can see your house, we can see you,” said LCCN’s Rob Tutton, explaining that homes in the photo have line-of-sight access to the new distribution point at Ajax Peak.
As residents hook up their new NanoBeams, however, there’s even more traffic on the network which already has problems processing signals at peak hours, between 6 and 9 p.m.
“Our radio antenna signals bump into one another,” said Jacobs. “We need to set up two ‘parallel highways.’ We have some pretty sophisticated network issues,” he said.
The Ajax Peak distribution site also provides another route to get connectivity to Coral Bay, according to Jacobs.
“One of the most important things about building an emergency network is building in redundancy. There’s still a lot to do with the network.”
Jacobs recommends that people who have NanoBeams take a photo to record the direction they point. That way if residents take down their NanoBeams when their regular internet service is restored, or when a storm is on the way, they can put the NanoBeams back up in the proper position to receive LCCN’s signal in an emergency.
Shared content for Virgin Islands Source and St. John Tradewinds.
Editor’s Note: This has been updated to clarify it has not yet put up distribution sites on the east end of St. John.