Engineers Help NGOs Get Online After Haiti Quake

More satellite and wireless service coming

Photo: Inveneo

Portions of this story appeared in a blog earlier this week. For information about IEEE's Haiti rebuilding fund, click here.

22 January 2010—With thousands of doctors, nurses, aid workers, and troops descending on Port-au-Prince in the past week to join more than 800 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating there, reporters on the ground have observed that the damage done to the telecommunications infrastructure is hampering coordination efforts. But in terms of telecommunications, things could certainly have been worse. Most of the cellphone operators say that the majority of their base stations seem to be functioning, and in an ironic twist, it turns out that Haiti’s Internet connectivity is robust precisely because its telecommunications infrastructure is so underdeveloped.

Specifically, most Haitian ISPs—and indeed most ISPs in poor countries—connect to the Internet via satellite, according to Stephan Beckert, an analyst for TeleGeography. So Haitian ISPs were not dependent on the country’s lone 1.92-terabit-per-second undersea fiber-optic cable link, which was knocked out during the quake and won’t be repaired for some time.

To help increase bandwidth availability in Haiti, communications satellite operator SES World Skies announced on 14 January that it is donating satellite capacity on five of its spacecraft and access to teleport facilities in support of relief efforts, disaster recovery, and to cover vital communications needs. The satellites provide inbound and outbound connectivity for the disaster zone as well as internal communication links.

haiti 02
Photo: Inveneo

The challenge for engineers now is the proverbial last mile—getting local connections to satellites restored so Haitians and NGOs can get online.

At least one group of NGOs wants to take advantage of satellite connectivity to coordinate relief efforts. NetHope, a collaboration of 28 of the world’s leading international humanitarian organizations, is working with San Francisco–based Inveneo to establish Internet connectivity in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas via VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite links combined with long-range Wi-Fi. The connection will be available to all of NetHope’s members in Haiti, says the NGO, and requests for access points will be chosen based on power, security, and line of sight.

According to Inveneo, the network will support Internet access in and out of the country, carry voice communications until the cellular networks are repaired, and allow for collaboration and sharing of resources among NGOs.

Reached by e-mail over the weekend, Inveneo CEO Kristin Peterson told IEEE Spectrum that Inveneo cofounder Mark Summer and engineer Andris Bjornson were bound for Haiti on Tuesday with the logistical assistance of the housing-aid group CHF International. Summer and Bjornson are bringing with them more than 680 kilograms of equipment, including climbing gear, power drills, power strips, electrical cords, coaxial cables, wireless routers, RocketDish parabolic antennas, and 10 Linux miniservers, says Peterson. The Inveneo team is slated to stay for two weeks, though that may change depending on the circumstances.

Other groups have arrived with telecommunications expertise and equipment as well. Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF), based in Pau, France, sent two teams last week at the request of UNICEF and the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination teams. According to TSF, its engineers ”installed reliable and durable connections for local authorities and emergency responders.”

Late last week, the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—also an arm of the United Nations—dispatched engineers to assess the damage to telecom infrastructure and deployed personnel to operate some 100 satellite terminals they brought with them. ITU says it will also set up a Qualcomm Deployable Base Station for cellular communication.

Alongside efforts aimed at restoring basic communications, programmers around the world have been organizing around the CrisisCommons wiki and live meet-ups dubbed CrisisCamps in places like Washington, D.C.; Silicon Valley; Los Angeles; London; and Wellington, New Zealand, to create, among other things, a Google map for NGOs to use. They are also working on the Tweak the Tweet project to optimize the microblogging service Twitter to coordinate relief efforts.

But of course, to take advantage of the new applications being developed, NGOs need Internet access.

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