Haiti Earthquake: One Year Later (Part 1)

How Inveneo is pushing telecom's recovery

9 March 2011—A year ago, IEEE Spectrum published articles and blogs about what nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were doing to restore the telecommunications infrastructure in Haiti, such as it was, after the 12 January 2010 earthquake and the dozens of aftershocks that wreaked havoc on the tiny island nation. At that time, Spectrum got a glimpse into the conditions on the ground there through the eyes of Mark Summer, cofounder and chief innovation officer at Inveneo, a San Francisco–based nonprofit whose mission is to get communications technology to people in developing nations in order to hasten disaster relief, provide economic opportunities, and reduce child mortality.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, Inveneo helped to reestablish communications in the Port-au-Prince area for NGOs responding to the disaster. But a year later, the focus has shifted: Summer and his colleagues realized that there was also a huge need for telecommunications in the rural areas outside Port-au-Prince. While there is cellphone coverage in those areas, broadband Internet access is pretty much nonexistent for most of the roughly 7 million people (out of a total population of 10 million) who live outside of the capital city area.

Besides helping with the recovery effort, establishing sustainable communications links across the countryside will help the Haitian government realize its plan to become decentralized and much less concentrated in Port-au-Prince, says Summer. In order to do this, Inveneo hopes to help remedy a huge skill shortage in the IT sector all around Haiti, especially in the rural areas. One of the complaints Summer and his colleagues frequently hear from relief organizations and those with longer-term aims is that they lack access to connectivity, and there is usually no one around to help them with their computing infrastructure. So they have a difficult time setting up computer labs in schools or maintaining computer systems in hospitals. Increasing capacity in rural areas will aid initiatives aimed at making education, health care, local government, and entrepreneurship possible, says Summer. He hopes the result will be a more stable economy.

Inveneo has targeted six regions in Haiti where it will increase the reach of ISPs by providing equipment and identifying and training local IT entrepreneurs who can help maintain the equipment and offer customer support. To realize its vision, the organization first set about raising US $1.1 million to cover the cost of the gear, the training, and the labor associated with extending the telecom infrastructure out into these regions.

Inveneo reached its funding goal in December 2010 and is now getting the project under way. Summer reports that the organization has had a pilot site up and running for about four months in Léogâne, a small town about 29 kilometers west of Port-au-Prince that was near the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake.

One aim of the project is to supplement, or in some cases, replace, the proprietary WiMax systems that currently serve as the last-mile solution for most of Haiti’s Internet users. Summer explains that although WiMax gets the job done, ”it’s expensive, and outside Port-au-Prince, where the population density is comparatively low, the capital and operational costs versus the number of subscribers you’re going to see will make it difficult for the service provider to stay in business.”

Instead, Inveneo is introducing Wi-Fi 802.11n setups designed to operate in the unregulated frequency space in the 5.8-gigahertz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band. They can be configured in a point-to-multipoint arrangement, connecting multiple end users to the device so they’ll all have Internet access. They can also be set up in a point-to-point fashion, with antennas that are extremely focused, in order to make a link between points that might be 20, 30, or even 50 km apart. Summer says the systems get significant throughput, with links of 50 megabits per second or more. What’s more, he says, they’re much less costly than some of the proprietary technologies, and they work just as well in rural areas.

These systems sidestep one of the biggest problems across most of Haiti: unreliable or nonexistent electricity delivery. Inveneo uses low-power equipment that consumes 5 to 10 watts and is usually powered by solar energy. That eliminates the need to truck fuel and maintain generators, both of which are expensive. Using solar energy makes the setup a one-time investment, rather than a recurring operating cost. (End-user organizations, such as NGOs, often have their own generators, or they can run their computers on solar power as well.)

For a typical setup, ”you need two or three car batteries for your power backup system, one or two 80-W solar panels with dimensions about the size of the broad side of a large suitcase, and the radio and antenna,” says Summer. He adds that for a point-to-multipoint setup, the antenna is very small, no more than half a meter tall by 0.1 meter wide. The radio snaps right on the back; it’s small and very light. For long-distance point-to-point transmissions, the antenna is roughly the size of the small dishes that users of satellite TV services like DirecTV have mounted on their homes, Summer notes.

To further the savings and reduce ongoing operational costs, entrepreneurs from outside the capital will come to Port-au-Prince for training paid with the funds Inveneo has raised and take the knowledge back home. National ISPs won’t have to pay to send teams out to the countryside, and people in those regions can then support and maintain the networks and connect end users.

There’s still a way to go, but Summer asserts that over the past year, telecommunications in Haiti have improved. ”In the event of another disaster, larger parts of the networks will remain in service or will be rebuilt faster,” he says. He predicts that communications outside Port-au-Prince will be much more readily available to organizations seeking to coordinate the provision of services or the relocation of survivors. ”Those things were just not possible a year ago,” says Summer.

Asked about the impact of what he and his colleagues are doing in Haiti, Summer says, ”Technology really is an enabler that can be a key change agent in places like Haiti. By connecting schools, hospitals, and small businesses, you really can improve the overall state of a country immediately, at a relatively low cost.”

This is the first weekly installment in a three-part series, reporting on the Haitian recovery.