The phones started buzzing right after the system started working. After more than a week with only limited connections to the outside world, residents on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques were hearing news of their loved ones for the first time since Hurricane Maria hit.
A system donated by the Lexington company Vanu, Inc. had restored cell service to a hard-hit part of the US territory that continues to endure widespread utility outages more than two weeks after the deadly storm.
“Some people were in tears, getting messages in and sending messages out to their mothers and their kids, saying, ‘I’m alive,’” said Adam Marlatt, leader of Global DIRT , a nonprofit that helps with rescues, medical needs, and communication following disasters.
The organization is using technology developed by Vanu to bring cellular service to thousands of people in devastated areas through a satellite Internet signal being beamed by Cubic Mission Solutions .
By Wednesday, the groups had collaborated on three such systems on St. John and Vieques. They have identified 17 more sites on the main island of Puerto Rico, and they hope to serve as many as 40.
The help can’t come soon enough. As of Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission said, nearly 90 percent of cellular sites were out of service in Puerto Rico. Thirty-three of its 78 counties had no operating cell sites.
The challenge proved to be inviting to Vanu, which makes cellular antenna systems that use little energy and are able to operate using solar power.
The company has been building out networks in rural areas, including some of the more remote parts of Vermont, and it is also bringing service to rural parts of Rwanda.
Vanu Bose, chief executive of the company, said he is sending the equipment to Puerto Rico free of charge. The systems usually cost just under $5,000, he said.
“It’s been so motivating for our employees, because everyone watches the news and says, ‘I wish I could do something to help,’” said Bose, son of the late Bose Corp. founder Amar Bose. “Suddenly we have a way to help.”
Global DIRT’s Marlatt, who was in Houston on Wednesday preparing for the next installations, said the technology provided by Cubic and Vanu has created pockets of cellular access about five kilometers across.
Though many people are still waiting for access, the hookup on Vieques allowed people to resume getting their medications from a local pharmacy, he said.
Residents had been sharing satellite phones using generators to keep their cellular devices charged, Marlatt said, so they could use them as soon as service returned. When a downed system is brought back to life, he said, no announcement is needed.
“All of the sudden text messages from your loved ones start arriving on your phone instantaneously,” he said.