Engineers Race to Restore Communications after Haiti Quake

Relief coordination depends on engineers getting networks up and running

3 min read

Engineers Race to Restore Communications after Haiti Quake

With thousands of doctors, nurses, aid workers and troops descending on Port-au-Prince in the last week to join more than 800 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) already there, reporters on the ground have observed that the damage done to the telecommunications infrastructure is hampering coordination efforts. But 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 connect to the Internet via satellite and are not dependent on the country's lone undersea fiber optic cable link, which was knocked out the during the quake. The challenge for engineers now is the proverbial last mile--getting local connections to satellites restored so NGOs can get online.

Basic telecommunications aide was quick to arrive, but it was limited to helping first responders. Telecom sans Frontieres based in Pau, France sent two teams last week at the request of UNICEF and the UN Nations 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 Telecommunications Union dispatched engineers to assess the damage to telecom infrastructure along with 100 satellite terminals—and the personnel to operate them—in an effort to help coordinate rescue efforts. According to a press release, “ITU will also set up a Qualcomm Deployable Base Station (QDBS), a reliable, responsive and complete cellular system designed to enable vital wireless communications aimed at strengthening response and recovery mechanisms in a disaster zone.”

Trilogy International Partners, which owns the Voila-Comcel cellphone company, says that its network is operating 80 percent of its cell sites and is providing 20,000 phones and service to relief agencies at no charge. Meanwhile, Digicel Group, which serves 2 million Haitian cellphone customers, said Sunday that it is working to restore 30 percent of its base stations; the other 70 percent are functional.
Alongside efforts aimed at restoring basic communications, programmers around the world have been organizing around the Crisis Commons wiki and live meet-ups dubbed Crisis Camps in places like Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, London, and Wellington, New Zealand to create, among other things, a Google map for use by NGOs and the Tweak the Tweet project to optimize the microblogging service to coordinate the efforts of relief workers.

But to take advantage of the new applications being developed, NGOs need Internet access. That would seem to be a big problem because the lone undersea fiber optic cable linking Haiti to the rest of the world was severed during the quake. Consulting group Telegeography spoke with a representative of Bahamas Telecommunication Company, owner of the Bahamas Domestic Submarine Network, which links to Haiti, who said that there's no telling how long it will be before the cable is repaired. However, most ISPs in Haiti--and in much of the developing world--rely on satellites for Internet connectivity and so were not affected.

Stephan Beckert of TeleGeography told IEEE Spectrum today that the cable outage isn't as big a deal was one would imagine. "I just chatted with James Cowie, CTO of Renesys. He confirmed that the cable outage didn't have much impact on connectivity to Haiti, because most of the ISPs in Haiti are still reliant on satellites."

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

At least one NGO network 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 provide “Internet connectivity via VSAT / Wimax [Correction: according to Inveneo's Joel Pliskin, engineers will install long-range WiFi links, not Wimax] link in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. This connection will be available to all of NetHope's members in Haiti. Requests for access points are chosen based on power, security, and line-of-sight.”

According to an Inveneo press release “This 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. Establishment of networks like this is a cornerstone of our core competency and provides an avenue for us to deploy additional ICT infrastructure and participate in longer-term capacity building and reconstruction opportunities in country.”

Reached by email over the weekend, Inveneo CEO Kristin Peterson told IEEE Spectrum that Inveneo co-founder Mark Summer and engineer Andris Bjornson were bound for Haiti on Tuesday with the assistance of CHF International, which Peterson says “is helping us with the logistics to get in to Haiti.” They are bringing with them more than 330 kilos of equipment, including climbing gear, power drills, powerstrips, electrical cords, coax cable, wireless routers, 18 5 Ghz RocketDish parabolic antennas, and 10 Linux mini-servers. Summer and Bjornson are slated to stay for two weeks, though that may change depending on circumstances. 

Images courtesy of Inveneo. Top image: Mark Summers left, Colm Pelow right, check equipment. Bottom image: Briah Shih gets a palette of RocketDishes ready for shipment.

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