From Redmond with WiFi: How this Microsoft employee helped bring critical infrastructure to a hurricane-ravaged Caribbean island

Nicholas Harland at his office, with an image behind him showing the path of Hurricane Irma. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Nicholas Harland worried about his uncle Roger.

Roger Harland, a resident of the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John, is on medication for a recent liver transplant, and over the summer, with Hurricane Irma approaching, the family couldn’t get in touch. So his nephew began hatching a plan with his family to get to the island and make sure his uncle had the medication he needed.

Nicholas Harland, a senior manager at Microsoft, ran into a roadblock right away. St. John lacks its own airport, so the typical method of passage would be to fly to the island of St. Thomas and take a ferry over. But Irma decimated the St. Thomas airport, forcing Harland to find another path.

A damaged St. John, days after Hurricane Irma hit the island. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

So he turned to the internet, finding a Facebook group of people trying to get supplies to those affected by the hurricane. There he connected with a restaurant owner cooking meals and sending them by boat to St. John from St. Croix, an island 45 minutes south that was spared the full brunt of Irma.

Nicholas Harland on the job in St. John. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

“I flew there, and these people that I didn’t know put me up in their house overnight and fed me and gave me an air-conditioned room,” said Harland. “And then I got on a boat the next morning and went over to St. John.”

A little more than a week after Irma hit, Harland reunited with his uncle and aunt Fran. It turned out Roger was well supplied with four months’ worth of medication, and Harland brought another two months’ worth.

An experienced backpacker, Harland brought everything he needed to survive for a couple days. He says he wanted to help, not turn himself into someone who needed aid.

That’s when his mission took on a larger purpose. He had brought with him $7,000 worth of satellite phones and other communication equipment to help Roger and Fran stay connected to the family.

Harland’s equipment stash included 12 Baofeng UV5-R radios, powerful handheld Ham Radios, to hand out to friends and neighbors. If they caught on, Harland said, he was ready to recruit folks who could set up radio towers to restore some form of communication to the island.

But it turned out there was a group already doing that. After getting a signal, Harland started asking around to find out who was working on re-connecting the island. He hooked up with a group of local IT pros working to restore internet service via a new WiFi network. Though cell service was down and the island was without power, the group was able use an undersea cable that still worked as the backbone of its network.

They set up the first WiFi hotspot on the island four days after Irma hit, before Harland arrived. They also managed to set up a point-to-point link at a National Park Service office where first responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were stationed and at a few businesses, so customers could run credit cards.

When Harland arrived, he met up with the team at a pizza shop that would serve as their home base. Together, they came up with a plan to provide WiFi to the entire island.

The office in the early days of the effort that would become Love City Community Network. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

Harland was only supposed to stay a couple of days, help out his uncle, drop off the equipment he brought and then head out. But the second catastrophic storm to hit the area, Hurricane Maria, disabled the St. Croix airport, leaving him stranded.

Harland did eventually get off the island, but three months later, he is still making trips to St. John from Redmond, Wash., and is back there again between Christmas and New Year’s. Each time he has hauled with him thousands of dollars in gear to bolster the WiFi network. This effort is a first for Harland, taking his philanthropic giving to a new level of engagement.

“I give to charities, I have payroll deductions, but I’ve never actually been in a position where I had skills and experience that could really impact an entire community like that,” Harland said.

Harland and the local IT guys — Matt Gyuraki, Jason Monigold, Morgan Barlas, Rob Tutton, Pete Miazga — have since founded a nonprofit called Love City Community Network. The goal is to continue developing a plan for bringing WiFi to storm-stricken areas like St. John and serve as a resource for other groups that want to replicate that effort. Harland recruited a fellow engineer, Majdi Abbas, a former Yahoo engineer, to join the effort, and he has since become a critical team member.

Gear for one of Harland’s trips to St. John. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

Harland is in St. John again right now, his fourth trip there, and possibly his last for a while. This time around, he will be setting up more point-to-point equipment to increase the capacity of the network, as it is starting to run up against bandwidth issues.

Testing WiFi equipment at Harland’s Redmond, Wash. apartment. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

And even if he can’t go back for a while, Harland will remain prominently involved in the effort. During an interview at his Microsoft office in Redmond, Wash., part of the network briefly went down, illustrating that the work didn’t end when the network launched. His office, where he is surrounded by a quartet of monitors and a poster showing Irma’s path in September, is a mix of his work life and his growing mission on St. John.

At his apartment, also in Redmond, Harland has been testing the equipment he brings to St. John. That gives him what he calls “probably one of the fastest WiFi networks around.”

Harland has always been an internet enthusiast. He got his first job with an internet service provider at the age of 15, back in an era when every small town had a dial-up internet service provider. He’s been with Microsoft for five years now, and today he works in the company’s Global Network Acquisition Group, which plans and manages Microsoft’s worldwide network of data centers. He knows a few things about managing a complex network.

Those skills came in handy when the group was hunkered down during Maria. Still without power, the team had to take down much of the infrastructure it had built because of the risk posed by the second storm. So they began building a plan to present to aid and governmental organization to get funding for their work and the equipment they needed. In putting together the bones of the new WiFi network, they went analog.

“We got out a map and some pins and strings, and pieced together sight lines to get point-to-point wireless all over the island,” Harland said.

Once the storm clouds cleared, the team that would become Love City Community Network got back to work. And so did other island residents. That included country music star Kenny Chesney, who has a home on the island that was destroyed by Irma. His charity Love for Love City aimed to identify the biggest needs and create an avenue for people to donate money and supplies to the rescue effort.

The WiFi network on St. John.

A friend of Harland’s in Boston bought some wireless equipment and sent it down on a private jet owned by a hedge fund manager on the island. With the local public airports still decimated, that same plane got Harland off the island nearly two weeks after he first arrived, along with some injured residents.

Wealthy and isolated, with 70 percent of the 20-square-mile island an undeveloped national park, the challenges on St. John were different from those in dense cities. With only about 5,000 people, a small proportion of the overall Virgin Islands population, Harland says St. John was not the top priority for government response. The team counted on their knowledge of the island, finding the right spots on the rugged terrain to put up their equipment

At the same time, other organizations on the ground were working to get things back up to speed. One was a group called Global Disaster Immediate Response Team, or Global DIRT. Founded to respond to the massive 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the organization aims to fill in gaps in disaster response and work with both government organizations and locals participating in the recovery.

In the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the organization has been working to get communications back online. Zac Clancy, director of IT at Global DIRT, told GeekWire that the locals on St. John have made a huge difference in the recovery — doing everything from getting communications back online to making meals to just walking around and asking people what they need.

The Global DIRT team installing solar panels on St. John. (Global DIRT Photo)

As the internet and smartphones have proliferated around the world, getting the web back up has become almost as important as getting power again, and that’s why it’s among Global DIRT’s top priorities on the ground.

“When you have these larger bodies arriving, like your Navy, your Coast Guard, if you don’t have any sort of communications infrastructure laid out already, or if there isn’t a way to communicate anyways, things become very complicated,” Clancy said.

The first thing the Global DIRT team did when they arrived in St. John was hand out a bunch of satellite phones. And the large volume of equipment brought down by Harland, the local IT pros on the island and other volunteers sped things up. One of the local IT guys, Gyuraki, extrapolated what they did on St. John and installed a WiFi network working with Google, Facebook and the non-profit NetHope to set up an “air fiber” connection linking cell towers on a 19-square-mile Puerto Rican island.

Despite all this work, there remains much to do. It took almost two months for the first buildings to get power back on St. John, and Harland’s team estimates that still only about 60 percent of houses on the island have power. In Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria, many remain without power.

The island of St. John. (Nicholas Harland Photo)

Beyond the efforts of residents, aid organizations and government agencies, tech companies have stepped up to help the recovery mission. Tesla, Facebook, Google and many more all worked in the immediate aftermath of the storms to restore power and connectivity to the regions.

Microsoft has pitched in with both donations and technology. It gave $1 million for disaster relief in the immediate aftermath, and as of November it had donated more than $5 million.

Microsoft is teaming with NetHope and aid organizations to provide connectivity through TV white space technology. That involves tapping into unused blocks of broadcast spectrum between TV channels to deliver wireless broadband connections over great distances and difficult terrain.

The efforts of these tech companies has greatly aided recovery, said Clancy of Global DIRT. What helps most in terms of long-term recovery is manpower. Getting talented engineers down to fix problems is a key part of getting connections back up and keeping them functional. A long-term presence beyond just the initial shock of the storm makes it easier to maintain and manage new systems built during the recovery.

“It’s hard to gain perspective over a smaller period of time,” Clancy said. “One of the reasons we find ourselves so effective is because we are here for months, and we will be here months later. Because we’ve been here for that long and because we anticipate being here for that long, the decision-making of how we’re doing things becomes a bit easier because we don’t necessarily feel a crunch for time and we don’t necessarily feel like we need to make the most amount of impact in a couple days and hope it pans out.”

Beyond the effort on St. John, Harland hopes the Love City team group can help provide a model for re-connecting communities after disasters. Harland said initial recovery efforts from non-governmental organizations don’t often focus on getting businesses up and running so the economy can rev up again.

That was a big part of their work on St. John.

“When you lose your communication circuits and all of your power, all the banks close and you can’t use an ATM, and stores can’t process payment cards. So the entire economy became cash and what we realized, people can’t get more cash because banks the are closed, and the ferries weren’t running,” Harland said. “We deployed WiFi to the grocery store, the hardware and a pharmacy so that they could run credit cards again.”