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Mobilizer 8.30.06

Digicel Readies for Hurricane Season
By Jessica Rivchin

With Tuesday the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and Ernesto whirling toward the East Coast, hurricane preparedness has definitely entered the forefront of the American consciousness. Digicel, a burgeoning Caribbean telecom, is working to improve vital wireless communications via text messages, GPS and more.

Organizations such as the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA)—the Jamaican equivalent of FEMA—look to Digicel for leadership, says Harry Smith, commercial director of Digicel Jamaica. Smith notes that the company has brought about a great deal of improvement in wireless communications since its launch back in 2001.

“When we launched, mobile service in Jamaica was restricted to large cities, so we worked to provide coverage in areas that had no telephony. Now, the national mobile penetration is almost 80 percent of the adult population, and we have almost seamless coverage in Jamaica.” The initial improvements in wireless networks were imperative, since “if people didn't have service, they would be marooned,” says Smith. Due to the broader wireless network, says Smith, “We can also position [first responders] so they can respond more quickly in the event of a hurricane.”

With the help of local police, Digicel has also established an emergency texting service that allows users to text for help as well as to alert first responders to their locations. “Sometimes circumstances don't let them use the phone—like in high winds, when we can't hear them,” says Smith. The caller's mobile number is automatically available to the police, so they can find out the identity of the person who needs help.

Digicel Jamaica is also striving to help workers stay connected, even when they can't reach their office due to severe weather. The company offers a BlackBerry service and a GPS network enabling employees to work wirelessly from their laptops or other mobile devices. “Now, mobile workers can go anywhere and check their email.”

Digicel's hurricane preparedness efforts are taking place across all 20 Caribbean markets. Digicel Cayman Islands is looking to improve wireless communications by increasing network capacity and upgrading backup systems throughout the three-island network, and Digicel Barbados is facilitating SMS alerts to the national disaster team.

“Digicel has created a dependable emergency system,” says Smith, “but hopefully, we won't have to use it.”