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.

Perera's T-Mobile phone is roaming on Voilà, a Haitian carrier (formerly called Comcel) that claims about 1 million subscribers, which it estimates is roughly one-third of the country's mobile accounts. Voilà is owned by Trilogy International Partners in Bellevue, Washington.

About 17 percent of Voilà's base stations are still offline, but the roads have now been cleared enough that engineers can at least get to them all, according to Trilogy spokeswoman Carol Wilson. Voilà has determined only half of them can be repaired. But relief is on the way in the form of truck-mounted cell towers called COWs (cells on wheels), donated by T-Mobile for the duration of the crisis. Five are already on the ground and eight more are expected by ship on Wednesday.

Compounding carriers' problems, call volume has soared since the quake as subscribers try to reach loved ones. The number of completed calls on Voilà has been between 150 percent and 200 percent of normal, Wilson said. Voilà is asking the Haitian government for more radio spectrum to handle the additional calls, she said. In a humanitarian gesture, Voilà is actually encouraging more mobile use: The carrier is reactivating all its closed accounts and giving the customers about five minutes of calling time, and also giving double minutes to customers who add to their prepaid plans, according to Wilson.

Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), an international aid group that responds quickly to disasters with connectivity and IT assistance, is also offering brief free calls at phone centers in refugee camps around the country.

As many as 2,700 families have used the service, the group said in a statement on Monday. Telecommunications is a critical form of aid because many Haitians have relatives living outside the country, TSF said. In addition to reassuring family members, earthquake victims often also arrange to have money sent for relief. But an estimated one-third or fewer of Haiti's 9 million residents have cell phones, and those living in refugee camps now have no place to charge them, TSF said.

TSF also aids governments and aid organizations with emergency connections. It has set up broadband satellite links at three key locations for relief and order: the On-Site Operations Coordination Centre at the nation's main airport, the base of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (Minustah) peacekeeping force, and at the national police headquarters.

Satellite was already a major form of international communication in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world. In late 2006, Haiti gained a high-speed wired connection to the Internet via an extension of the Bahamas Domestic Submarine Network, a fiber-optic cable with a total capacity of 1.92T bps. Service on the cable was disrupted by the quake, but most of the country's links to the outside world are operational, according to research firm Telegeography, which studies international telecommunications.

"Our understanding is that communications with Haiti has only suffered relatively modest disruptions. That suggests that most of Haiti's international connectivity is still via satellite, rather than over this one cable," Telegeography analyst Stephan Beckert said in an e-mail interview.

But in some respects, the catastrophe in Haiti is even worse than other major disasters around the world, according to Perera, who also saw the aftermaths of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami and other disasters over the past seven years. The country of 27,750 square kilometers is so small that the impact of the quake has been magnified, he said.

"Things are so centralized here that when the infrastructure in the capital is destroyed, it's just devastating for the whole country."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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