Haiti digs out from communications disaster

Carriers and aid workers are scrambling to rebuild communications in Haiti following the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake near the capital city of Port-au-Prince, which left many residents with no means of communicating inside or outside the country.

Haiti's wired telecommunications system was devastated in the quake, and it is still nearly impossible for most people to make a landline call, according to Rick Perera, a spokesman for CARE, a U.S.-based aid organization with local and international staff in Haiti.

"When you drive around and look at what the wires and poles look like, it's just beyond imagination," Perera said. He thinks the country may abandon its wired network and go straight to wireless as it rebuilds.

But through a variety of means, connectivity is already improving for Haitians and for organizations such as CARE. Aid groups that focus on communication systems are bringing in emergency solutions, and at least one of the country's major mobile operators has finally been able to assess and start to repair its network.

In the first days following the quake, the only way CARE employees could reliably communicate was via SMS (Short Message Service), Perera said. Local staffers participated in conference calls with the organization's Atlanta headquarters by sending text messages that were read out loud on the call, and U.S. participants would then text their responses.

Good data links are critical for humanitarian aid groups, Perera said. CARE has about 130 workers stationed around Haiti, plus temporary international experts, and is rapidly adding local staff. And while CARE helps people on the ground after disasters, it also shares information about its work to raise more money. This effort has entered the video age, with staffers in Haiti uploading digital clips directly to the U.S. headquarters.

More than two weeks after the quake, the wired broadband in CARE's local office is working off and on, and its Internet service provider has managed to upgrade the link to about 1M bps (bit per second). CARE has brought in its own IT specialist from the U.S. and is setting up VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) phones. The communications aid group NetHope is helping CARE set up a satellite VSAT (very small aperture terminal), and cellular service is improving, Perera said.

"It's been really quite amazing to watch [our] capacity grow over the last couple of days," he said.

The first bit of good news came as a surprise when some CARE employees arrived from the U.S. and were able to make voice calls.

"We quickly figured out, for reasons that escape me, that T-Mobile GSM phones from the U.S. were working here," Perera said. "Mine was the only working phone in the office" for voice calls, he said. Each call took several tries, but they went through.

"I've pretty much always been able to call other countries," Perera said. "Calling other Haitian phones early on was difficult, but now it's getting better." In the past few days, BlackBerry e-mail service has also started to come back, he said.

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