Imagine needing an hour to send a single email. Imagine having to drive for miles just to give a status update to your colleagues. Imagine a one-minute phone call that costs twice as much as the average daily income where you live.

And imagine that the stakes aren’t simply a matter of your time, patience or sanity… but life and death.

For many health workers battling the Ebola crisis in West Africa, they don’t have to imagine – it has often been a daily reality. Before receiving high-speed internet, it could take a health worker in Port Loko, Sierra Leone an hour to send an email containing lab results. A phone call to order supplies could cost US $5 per minute. An employee at an Ebola treatment unit in N’zerekore, Guinea had to drive to a nearby town every day just to send status updates to colleagues in the capital city of Conakry.

While those locations now have broadband, thanks to collaboration among the Emergency Telecom Cluster and other partners, reliable internet access remains a major challenge in coordinating the Ebola relief effort, particularly in some of the hardest hit areas that lack high-speed connection. Existing networks in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have also been strained by the influx of relief workers and agencies, which increase pressure on the already fragile infrastructure. The lack of connectivity makes it hard to map outbreaks, mobilize communities and manage supplies and logistics.

After years of responding to disaster situations from Haiti to the Philippines, it’s clear that dependable communications capacity is the foundation for effective emergency response. The Ebola epidemic is no different. For many in the field, fighting Ebola is as much about logistics as medicine. Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International, says: “The ability of our teams to access and share information in real time is not simply a matter of greater efficiency: it saves lives.”

As part of our ongoing work to address this need, NetHope and EveryLayer are partnering with Facebook, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Cisco and Inveneo to expand support for effective communications capabilities in West Africa. The joint Ebola Response Connectivity Initiative (ERCI) will deliver high-speed broadband internet access to Ebola responders based in hundreds of treatment facilities, NGO offices and other logistical hubs in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

This initiative is grounded in what we’ve learned from working together in previous emergency response scenarios, as well as from our initial support for frontline responders in the Ebola crisis. Here are five of the key lessons:

  1. Stopgap then sustainable. It’s critical to address communications challenges as quickly as possible. The ERCI will meet the needs of immediate responders through rapid-deployment communications solutions, at a lower cost and at faster speeds than traditional mobile networks.
  2. Partnership is paramount. Collaboration is essential in any emergency response, particularly one as complex as Ebola. ERCI combines the expertise and resources of leading technology companies, such as Cisco; funding from companies and philanthropists, such as Facebook and Paul Allen; and on-the-ground infrastructure of local NGOs, to deliver communications solutions where needed.
  3. We’re in this together. ERCI shares resources with other response organizations. The response is multifaceted (it truly takes a global village) and includes not only large international NGOs, United Nations organizations and local health agencies, but hundreds of small partners and community-based organizations operating at the district or village level.
  4. Leverage local capacity first. A critical factor is designing technical deployments that are built for easy and quick deployment with local teams. Wherever possible, we are working with mobile network operators to leverage and strengthen existing infrastructure, ensuring long-term sustainability.
  5. From response to recovery. Given the nature of the outbreak, there can be no clear demarcation between response and recovery. While maintaining our focus on the former, we shouldn’t lose sight of the latter. Partnerships with local mobile network operators and improvements to local infrastructure will help ensure that communities have access to long-term, low-cost connectivity beyond the short-term Ebola relief effort. That will bolster economic recovery in the affected countries, while also strengthening local capacity to address the next potential outbreak or other public health challenges.

A doctor working in the treatment unit in N’zerekore described what it was like to function without connectivity: “Here we were essentially running a hospital with lots of employees, sick patients, a laboratory – and all this without internet. Imagine running a hospital without internet: it would be chaos.”

We are humbled to be able to support that doctor and thousands of other frontline workers in the Ebola fight. Their heroic work is hard enough. They don’t deserve chaos. Nor do the patients and communities they serve.

Authors: Kristin Peterson is a Schwab Social Entrepreneur and CMO/Co-Founder of EveryLayer, a San Francisco based start-up enabling service providers in emerging markets to provide lower-cost broadband services using Wi-Fi technology. Lauren Woodman is CEO of NetHope, a coalition of 42 leading international humanitarian organizations enabling the effective use of technology to better serve the developing world.

Image: Health workers put on protective gear before entering a quarantine zone at a Red Cross facility in the town of Koidu, Kono district in Eastern Sierra Leone December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner