Find out how Vodafone Instant Network volunteers managed to establish a network in Vanuatu to reconnect families and loved ones after Cyclone Pam

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For inhabitants of the Oceanic islands Vanuatu, tropical storms are a constant threat. Powerful cyclones roll off the Pacific with worrying regularity, but none have been more devastating than Cyclone Pam – a category 5 tropical storm that rocked Vanuatu last month, crippling the islands’ infrastructure and telecommunications and claiming the lives of at least 16 people.

When communications go down after a natural disaster like this, it becomes impossible to contact friends and loved ones and find out what’s happening. And that’s where the Vodafone Foundation comes in – it’s deployed a team of Instant Network volunteers to provide support to local operator Telecom Vanuatu Limited (TVL) in re-establishing communications in the wake of Cyclone Pam.

Installing an Instant Network

Vanuatu sits some 2,000 kilometres off the east coast of Australia – a beautiful and isolated volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Pacific. It’s home to around 270,000 people, most of whom are now busy rebuilding after the effects of Cyclone Pam – thought to be the worst natural disaster in Vanuatu’s one thousand year history.

For somewhere as remote and isolated as Vanuatu, outside help is essential to get the country back on its feet, and thanks to some small range femtocells and satellite kit, Vodafone was among the first on the scene, along with NGOs to provide that help.

Tanna is one of the most populated of Vanuatu’s 82 islands. It was also one of the hardest hit, and when our team of engineers arrived, only the most basic of satellite communications were up and running – meaning that the majority of the island’s 30,000 inhabitants had no way of contacting anyone beyond the shores.

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Our team of Vodafone New Zealand Instant Network volunteers – Lise Mackie, Rob MacLennan, Mark Tynan and Team Leader Justin Waller – flew in straight away with two VSATs, which are small ground stations that can communicate with orbiting satellites to transmit phone calls and text messages.

“We knew something big had happened as we flew into Port Vila,” says Lise. “From the aircraft we could see flattened palm trees everywhere. Once on the ground there was debris all over the place. Massive trees had been blown over, roots and all, and there was very little foliage in the trees that remained standing. Roofs were missing or severely damaged, and telephone lines were on the ground in places. The place just looked an understandable mess!”

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Despite obvious difficulties, the team managed to get the first set up within half a day, providing relief to those at the Local Disaster Management HQ.

“The network the team set up was the only way anyone could make calls or access the internet.”

Knowing in advance the complications of this deployment, the Vodafone team adapted the technologies used in previous deployments and worked with TVL prior to leaving for Tanna to find and deliver a solution that would provide the people of Tanna with their first phone and internet connections to the outside world since the cyclone hit. By adapting the technologies used, for the next 48 hours, the network the team set up was the only way anyone could make calls or access the internet, providing a vital lifeline to the people of Tanna.

As the team set up free phones across the island, it relieved the stress not just on families, but on businesses, banks, and travel companies who could now all make contact with their bases in Port Vila.

With this tech set up the team were able to help the local bank in Tanna stay open in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam, by using one of the VSATs. By enabling them to make phone calls and use the Internet, the team helped the bank process 2 million Vatu (USD $20,000) in transactions and order 8 million Vatu (USD $80,000) in cash to refill their ATM. This was significant as cash had become very hard to come by on the island. Prior to Vodafone and TVL enabling comms, the bank was trying to make transactions by a very cumbersome method. The Instant Network team helped get the bank operating again and trade on the island flowing again.

Reuniting families…

Those who had been waiting for the network to come online jumped at the chance to call family and friends in Vanuatu and the rest of the world. Calls to loved ones they’d been unable to contact in the days since the cyclone had torn through the archipelago were made to Australia, China,Fiji, Kenya, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the USA to name just a few.

“There was an older woman who handed a phone back to me after having spoken to her son for the first time in ten days,” Lise recalls. “She couldn’t speak as she had tears streaming down her face and it was obvious she was bursting with relief. It was completely heart-warming to see and was the exact reason I’d wanted to sign up to be an IN volunteer.

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“It was pretty awesome when we first got the femtocell up and running. The boys did an incredible job of putting together a solution that we thought could work in theory but, given all the technical and geographical variables we were dealing with, had no idea would work in practice. There were a lot of high fives and hugs within the team as we made our first phone calls!”

“We had one guy who had come to use the internet, he was on there for several hours uploading photos, so I had a chat with him,” says Mark. “His name was Johnson Siaka and he lived in a small settlement called Lamnadu in Central Tanna. He and both his parents lived in a house that he only finished building one month prior to Cyclone Pam. His house had been completely destroyed in the cyclone and he was now sleeping outside on the ground wrapped up in a flax mat.

“Johnson was spending his time on the Internet uploading photos to friends in Australia asking for help to repair his house and was very grateful to be able to do this.”

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As the Instant Network team returned to Auckland a week later, they left behind a secure telecoms network that had reunited thousands of families and we’re continuing to work alongside Vanuatu Telecom to provide phone and internet access to Tanna, as its people rebuild their homes and their lives.

Want to see more? To read about how Vodafone Instant Networks helped in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, click here.