Private networks in Haiti cause problems for local ISPs

While the communications networks that aid groups set up quickly following the earthquake in Haiti were surely critical to rescue efforts, the new networks have had some negative effects on the local ISP community.

Now, more than a month after the earthquake devastated the island nation, local Internet service providers in Haiti are starting to grumble about being left out of business opportunities and about how some of the temporary equipment -- using spectrum without proper authorization -- is interfering with their own expensive networks, causing a degradation of their services.

The aid organizations could better help Haiti in the long term by hiring the local companies, one Haitian with close ties to the ISP community said. "In order to help rebuild the economy, it would be better if they purchased from the local providers," said Stéphane Bruno, a Haitian IT consultant who works closely with the ISPs.

The local ISPs are struggling because so many of their business and consumer customers are simply out of business or can no longer pay for services. The ISPs would welcome the business of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Bruno said.

The local companies may be disappointed to learn that late last week the NGO community asked the provider of a temporary network many of them use to give them another 30 days of service.

Inveneo, the company that built a temporary network using satellites and Wi-Fi that is being used by a group of NGOs in Haiti, defends its work and says it has done its best to be sensitive to the local ISPs.

NetHope, a consortium of NGOs, approached Inveneo in the early days after the quake and asked it to build a network for the relief groups, said Mark Summer, chief innovation officer at Inveneo. "We felt at that point it made sense from a relief perspective to respond really fast," he said. It was critical for the NGOs to have reliable Internet connections so they could coordinate among relief workers and access resources like Google maps, he said.

Immediately after the earthquake the local ISPs were indeed overwhelmed, although because of the way their networks are built, they may have been able to respond relatively quickly to the NGOs' needs.

Despite the many early reports of a communications blackout in Haiti, the core Internet backbone in the country survived the quake.

Bruno had worked with a team of people, including Steve Huter, a project manager at the Network Startup Resource Center, to build Haiti's Internet Exchange Point. That project, which allows ISPs to route local traffic locally instead of sending it far away first, was just completed in May 2009. The NSRC is an organization that helps developing countries build international networking infrastructure and was initially funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF as well as corporations continue to support the group, which works out of the University of Oregon's computing center.

From his base in Oregon, just hours after the quake, Huter remotely checked on the servers in the Internet Exchange Point in Haiti. "I was able to determine that none of them had lost connectivity or service in the earthquake," Huter said. "Those machines were operational."

What wasn't operational, however, were all the wireless antennas that ISPs in Haiti typically use to distribute Internet access across Port-Au-Prince. But repairing those wireless links in order to restore service is a lot easier than if they had to repair wired lines to each individual user.

Still, the local ISPs were quite busy trying to assess damage to the network, and they were short-staffed because some workers feared aftershocks and were reluctant to enter telecom facilities, Bruno said. In addition, with electricity down in most of the city, they were left with the issue of powering the wireless base stations. That meant they didn't have the capacity to reach out to the NGOs, Bruno said.

Now, the ISPs may have to wait even longer to begin to serve these new customers. Late last week, NetHope and Inveneo began talking to the NGOs about transitioning off the temporary network. "The feedback given was that they'd like to keep this network operational for another 30 days. They did not feel they were quite ready to take on that logistical effort of coordinating [a transition to a new network] when they are still involved with day-to-day food distribution, shelter work and other things," Summer said.

That does not mean, however, that the NGOs will all be using the temporary network for another 30 days, he said. Inveneo and NetHope are encouraging the NGOs to begin talking to and negotiating with the local ISPs now so that they can transition as soon as possible. "The NGOs are saying 'give us time to do this properly,'" Summer said.

"So we said yes, if you want that, fine, but we need to now say we can't do this for free because we can't expect the local companies to keep donating their services," Summer said. Two local ISPs, AccessHaiti and MultiLink, donated the backhaul bandwidth for the temporary network. But Inveneo wants to begin to pay a local provider for that service. He planned to arrive in Haiti on Monday to begin talks with all of the local ISPs to come to an agreement so that Inveneo can pay one or more of them for backhaul services in March.

The local ISPs are also now trying to devise ways to ensure that the NGOs know they are ready for business. A Haitian ISP association is preparing a Web page that will outline the services that they are prepared to offer with information about how NGOs and other organizations can contact the companies, Bruno said. "So they can determine if the area is covered by a local provider before making a different decision," he said. The group hopes to issue a press release soon about the resource.

Many NGOs do know that the local ISPs would like their business.

"The local operators are indicating clearly that they would prefer these NGOs bought capacity from them or subcontracted," said Cosmas Zavazava, the chief of the emergency telecommunications group of the International Telecommunications Union's telecommunications development bureau. Speaking from Haiti, where he is working on communications issues, he said that some NGOs already have started employing local ISPs and that others might still.

The NGOs, however, have caused another set of problems as well. Many began using their wireless and satellite equipment without getting approval to use the required frequencies. That's in part because the Haitian regulatory authority's office had collapsed. "Their ability to license people in 48 hours or so [after the quake] was nonexistent," said Zavazava. "So people came in and started switching on their equipment and operating."

That caused interference with local ISPs who are licensed to use the spectrum, thus degrading the service that they are offering to customers, Zavazava and Bruno said. It continues to be a problem.

"This is causing discomfort on the part of local operators who have invested quite a lot of money in getting licenses and buying the equipment they are using," Zavazava said.

Haiti's regulatory authority has issued a statement asking all visitors to indicate which frequencies they are using in an attempt to harmonize operations, but many have not stepped forward, Zavazava said.

Some of those may be organizations that are beginning to wrap up their operations in Haiti. "They may not really have the motivation to approach the regulatory authority," Zavazava said.

He said the situation is not uncommon in areas where NGOs are working to help after a disaster hits but that it could be avoided with disaster preparedness exercises.

Inveneo said it has exclusively used equipment that operates in unlicensed bands so as not to interfere with local licensed operations. But Summer has read announcements about other groups that are using WiMax to deliver temporary services and those networks may be interfering with the locals, he said.

Bruno hopes that the NGOs will start using the local ISPs soon. "If you want everything to go back to normal, the best thing to do is use the services of the local providers," he said.

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