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Haiti disaster - a telecoms success story...?

While the final death toll from the earthquake on Haiti has yet to be established, it is clear that many of the world’s leading organisations, public and private, have supplied emergency equipment and food and drink on a massive scale. This article by Michael Schwartz looks at the early help given by the telecoms sector.

After any disaster, not least on the scale of an earthquake, communications break down on a massive scale. The New Orleans disaster of a few years ago left citizens stranded as many forms of conventional communication broke down. Then, the spectacle of rescue workers wading through water and carrying pencil-written messages to workers from other rescue companies because radio frequencies were incompatible became a source of difficulty, pain, shame and disgrace.

 Has anything happened differently on Haiti? Naturally, conventional fixed-line is a sitting duck when it comes to a tragedy of this magnitude - 7.0 on the Richter scale, landlines destroyed at the epicentre, and for all our support for it, even mobile with a lot to be desired.

 And yet, there has been a difference this time. Not satellites or mobiles per se but rather the social media. Twitter may be a subject of debate when job-seekers in affluent countries declare it to be acceptable one week but not the next. In Haiti it has become a key channel of communication. Twitter groups such as “#relativesinhaiti” and “#resumehaiti” have emerged to complement more established services.

 And enter Facebook whose role in Haiti is desperately sad but desperately needed as it records the identifies of missing people. The death toll has risen and risen, and it is now (21st January) estimated that 200,000 could die in the earthquake.

 Aid agencies need to target and prioritise their efforts. Ushahidi is a mapping service which can be used exactly to pinpoint aid recipients and their locations. 

 All these services and others have either enhanced the quality and extent of the rescue efforts, or they have filled the gaps left by conventional infrastructure which initially failed.

 So how have the traditional means of communication responded?

Well, Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF), which is UN-sponsored and operates from Pau in France, has sent two teams of telecoms engineers to Haiti. They have been accompanied by the equipment needed for two call-in centres in South-West Port-au-Prince. Incredibly, despite the damage caused by the earthquake the teams managed to fly into Port-au-Prince airport.

In more detail, the TSF personnel have installed reliable and durable connections for local authorities and emergency responders. Their first action was to install satellite connections and to set up multiple broadband access points (eg, Internet connections and phone lines).

IT support has been provided to the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti. This complex is located close to the airport, and links all UN agencies and NGOs. Due to capacity challenges at the Mission, TSF is now opening a telecoms centre dedicated to NGOs.

The first days of the TSF operations have revealed that the Haitian community is very important in the United States (95% of calls). In this desperate situation, giving the people affected a link with the outside world is vital: the chance to reassure loved ones with the single sentence “I am alive” is essential.

Haitian government coordinating offices are now linked to the outside world and can coordinate emergency responses thanks to fixed and mobile connections. There is also the long-term aim of opening more permanent TSF emergency telecoms centres.

Companies rise to the challenge of Haiti

Private companies have been quick to show their commitment to Haiti. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has committed US$500,000 to the American Red Cross International Response Fund to support relief efforts; it has also pledged up to $250,000 to match eligible contributions by HP employees. Money will support short-term relief as well as helping long-term reconstruction.

The US Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Centre reported that US companies promised more than US$43 million within three days of the attack. Among the donors was Microsoft (more than US$1 million). General Electric has also given US$1 million via the Red Cross and US$500,000 to UNICEF; GE has built ten solar-powered water-purification units to send once it gets clearance from Port-au-Prince Airport. Because of the “traffic jam” GE has had to negotiate a special landing “slot” or time.

Alcatel-Lucent has committed a team of engineers. Here, the challenge is how many engineers to send; one of Haiti’s key telecoms companies is Jamaica-based operator Digicel, which uses Alcatel-Lucent expertise and which has also experienced damage. Digicel has itself promised US$5 million.

Ericsson, according to the Canadian Globe & Mail, will be sending a plane from Brindisi, Italy. Inside will be thousands of mobile phones, four volunteers and a two-tonne box that may contain the answer to the prayers of aid workers trying to help survivors.

The box, which is about the size of a large garden shed, is a self-contained cellular network built by Ericsson. Once on the ground, it can be deployed to create a network capable of handling data and phone calls from 5,000 devices – a small but crucial piece of the puzzle of how to move essential supplies around the devastated.

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