Techological Challenges on Island Operations

A man stuck on an islandThe recent Tsunami in American Samoa highlights all the problems that may be encountered with island operations.  American Samoa is extremely remote relative to the lower-48 states, and this can lead to all sorts of additional complications.  It makes work on Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands looks simple.  This is just going to be the series of challenges to provide technology to disaster relief operations with island operations and considerations to overcome them.

People: Getting people there is the first challenge.  Limited flights and made even more limited as most airlines are getting aircraft off the island in advance of tropical storm.  American Samoa had an additional challenge of only two commercial flights per week regularly scheduled.  A tropical storm that targeted Guam caused the fuel freighter to be diverted.  Planes couldn’t fly to Guam as there was no way to refuel them for return trip.  Travelers to islands should always carry current passport.  A common layover for Guam is Tokyo.  While traveler may not have needed it on the flight there, they may need it to be flexible to get flight home.

Equipment: It took domestic overnight carrier to 10 days to deliver anything to American Samoa.  Our equipment left the lower-48, flew to Hawaii, Australian and New Zealand where it changed carriers to contract carrier to get it to American Samoa.  The lesson? Load people with as much core technology that can reasonably be carried on-board so it will arrive with them.  Supplemental equipment can be shipped via multiple carriers in case one has problem along the route.

Time & Forward Thinking: Events in the lower-48 can usually be addressed within short-term view through combination of overnight carriers, equipment suppliers, and NCS services.  The increased time to deliver equipment and people to island operations force technology planner to think more into the future.  It is likely that more resources will be placed in the pipeline than are needed at the other end.  This will appear to the untrained observer to be waste of resources and – when tied to increased shipping costs – a waste of money.  However, experienced people know that it is better to be beaten up for having too much on the ground over too little.  Unlike our friends who do feeding, technology has much longer shelf life then food so it is easier to return excess.

Satellites: This always gets interesting and will depend on the satellite you use for connectivity.  The eastern islands of the Caribbean Sea will have challenge hitting satellite over the Western US and Pacific.  The elevation is so low that building or hill will easily block it; let alone the mountain in the middle of most islands.  Always have satellite provider in your contact list who rents out satellite equipment (voice and data) to help provide the special event or surge capacity needed.

Local Cellular Resources: Retrospectively, it was amusing when customer service agent from major cellular provider didn’t know if American Samoa would be on the domestic or international maps.  Always do the research to determine how cell phones from the United States will operate on the island in question.  Not only for voice but also for data.  A quick check with the cellular provider for the US phones determined the voice rates were equal to or more expensive then our satellite phones.  The problem really lies in the data feature of smart phone and cellular air cards.  The user may not realize that just by turning it on, it will connect and start to transfer data.  The lesson? A clear simple statement to travelers warning them to leave their phone turned off (and remove the battery if needed).  It is always handy to have phone for the domestic legs of the travel so wouldn’t ask them to leave the phones at home.  In American Samoa, we ended up buying the local carrier’s phone and prepaid minutes as this was the cheapest option in the long run.

Local Telephone and Internet Resources: This can be the most useful relationship for technical person looking for connectivity.  Knowing the right person on the island with the “hook up” is great thing.  When the installation of data circuit can be expedited, it relieves bunch of stress.  There was McDonalds in American Samoa with free wifi that turned into the ad hoc FEMA and Red Cross gathering point until connectivity was established elsewhere.  The quality and reliability of the internet connection on an island is highly variable and may really jump to other islands before hitting mainland (not necessarily the US).  That said, it may be the most cost-effective method of establishing telephone and internet connection for site.  The use of IP phones (open or private systems) can really make the most out of data connection if it is cheaper than voice.

Domestic US Toll Free Numbers: All toll free numbers are not created equal and this has nothing to do with 800, 888, or 877 codes.  The service on the toll free number dictates who can call into it.  While less popular now, toll free number may be toll free for specific US metro area only.  Now it is most common that toll free numbers only work from the lower-48 states; not Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, USVI, NMI, etc.  This can cause problem if workers or the local population needs to call toll-free number to get service.  A toll-free number is just pointer to another number, so always give out the non-toll-free number to provide callers two methods to reach you.  If it is an international call to reach somewhere, odds are the domestic toll free number can’t be reached from that location back.  If you expect to be contacted from an international location and you want to minimize their costs, here’s the solution using Tokyo as an example: get a local phone number from Tokyo phone provider and set it to internationally forward to your domestic US non-toll-free number.  Then get Tokyo toll-free-number and direct it to the Tokyo local number.  A caller will be routed down the chain fairly transparently.  All the international charges would be incurred on the Tokyo local number.  Keep in mind that the Tokyo local number doesn’t physically exist anywhere, it is just means to route the caller.