19 February 2010—The earthquake in Haiti on 12 January demonstrated the country's lack of robust building infrastructure, as well as the importance of satellite-based Internet connectivity and amateur radio technology. The earthquake also highlighted the failure of Haiti's cellular phone infrastructure.
IEEE Spectrum has been corresponding via e-mail with a Haitian engineer, Charles-Edouard Denis, who helped build Haiti's first cellphone company, Haitel, and who describes the impact of Haiti's cellular infrastructure before and after the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince.
IEEE Spectrum: Can you describe the cellular and landline phone infrastructure as it was before the earthquake?
Charles-Edouard Denis: Prior to the earthquake, there were three cellular companies and one landline company working in Haiti.
Teleco [the incumbent landline operator, 98 percent government-owned] had fewer than 100 000 lines, and only 30 percent were working before the earthquake. The company is in the process of being privatized, but because the government never reinvested profits into the company, it cannot compete with the cellular companies' aggressive marketing campaigns and quickly available service.
Haitel [the first cellular company, utilizing code division multiple access technology, or CDMA] was launched in March 1999 and deployed 3G in 2005; it covers about 200 000 subscribers.
Comcel [the second cellular company, with time division multiple access (TDMA) technology] was launched in October 1999 and deployed GSM in 2005 under the name brand Voilà; it covers about 1 million subscribers.
Unigestion Holdings/Digicel Haiti [the third and last cellular operator] was launched in May 2006 with GSM ; it covers about 2 million subscribers [the vast majority of cellphone users].
Most people in Haiti have two or three cellular phones, and they only pay as they go. If they don't have money, they can keep their service [receive calls] and replenish when they can afford it. This is also good for the phone companies because it allows them to terminate international calls to these customers.
Spectrum: How can people afford to have multiple cellphones?
Denis: Before Digicel came in 2006, cellphones cost US$300 or $400, but those who could not afford the phones often received used phones from their relatives in the United States or Europe and so were able to have multiple phones. Now phones cost about $20, but service is 3 to 5 gourdes per minute (exchange rate now is 40 gourdes for $1). Digicel and Comcel have done a great job of creating access virtually everywhere in Haiti. Phone service is a tool used even by the shoeshine kids on the street of the capital, even the peasant collecting cocoa beans in faraway lands...
Spectrum: What happened immediately after the earthquake?
Denis: Right after the earthquake, the only company that was still working was Haitel, but its network was quickly overloaded. It remained operational mostly because it utilized almost exclusively 30- to 60-meter towers that are built to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.
Digicel and Comcel were not operational at all, and since between the two they have more than 3 million subscriptions, a lot of people could not communicate.