Satellite Internet Access Withstands Haiti Quake

Wireless broadband links relief agencies

3 min read

In the wake of the earthquake IEEE Spectrum reported on Haiti's cellular telephone system, the amateur radio operators, and other infrastructure. IEEE has set up a Haiti Rebuilding Fund.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on 12 January damaged telecommunications so severely that aid workers and troops found it difficult to coordinate rescue and recovery missions.

First impressions, however, didn't convey the whole story. It's true that landlines were destroyed, cellphone networks were temporarily overwhelmed, and the country's sole link to a fiber-optic undersea cable was severed. But Haiti's multiple links to the Internet—key to networking nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground—were functional.

Most Haitian ISPs—and indeed ISPs in many poor countries—connect to the Internet via satellite, according to Stephan Beckert, an analyst at TeleGeography Research. So Haitian ISPs were not dependent on the country's lone 1.92-terabit-per-second undersea cable link, which was knocked out during the quake and won't be repaired for some time. The satellite technology, known as very small aperture terminal (VSAT), connects Earth stations to spacecraft in distant, geosynchronous orbits.

"VSAT is usually the cheapest, fastest way to get a country connected to the Internet," says Hernán Galperin, a professor of telecommunications at Universidad de San Andrés, in Buenos Aires. An undersea cable offers economies of scale, but you end up relying on one piece of infrastructure. VSAT, like the Internet itself, tends to be more of a distributed network, with lots of points of connection. For Haiti, this distributed network infrastructure came as a blessing.

NetHope, a "collaboration of 28 of the world's leading international humanitarian organizations," was one of the NGOs taking advantage of satellite service. The organization was working with San Francisco–based Inveneo to bridge the proverbial last mile by establishing Internet connectivity in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas via VSAT links combined with long-range Wi-Fi. The Inveneo network supports Internet access in and out of the country, carries voice communications, and allows for the collaboration and sharing of resources among up to 20 NGOs.

“Cheap mobile Internet access could turn out to be one of the small factors that improve education and create economic opportunities for Haitians in the long run.”– James Cowie, chief technology officer, Renesys

Inveneo cofounder Mark Summer and engineer Andris Bjornson arrived in Haiti one week after the quake hit with the logistical assistance of the housing aid group CHF International. Summer and Bjornson brought with them more than 330 kilograms of equipment, including climbing gear, power drills, power strips, electrical cords, coaxial cable, wireless routers, more than a dozen 5-gigahertz RocketDish parabolic antennas, and 10 Linux miniservers.

Three days after their arrival in Port-au-Prince, Summer and Bjornson reported back to Inveneo via the Internet connection they had helped establish. They had connected a server to a VSAT satellite Internet downlink from ITC Global and installed a local access point for the CHF International headquarters. Then they created two long Wi-Fi links from the headquarters to two different offices of Save the Children Federation in Port-au-Prince. Later that afternoon they established a third link to the offices of Catholic Relief Services.

As Inveneo's partners and other NGOs shift from rescue to recovery to rebuilding, Internet access will continue to play an important role.

"In the long term, getting people access to cheap, diverse, reliable telecommunications will be one important element in Haiti's rebuilding as a nation," says James Cowie, chief technology officer at Renesys, an Internet-monitoring firm.

Because Haiti's mobile-phone penetration rate was pretty high before the quake, Cowie thinks that most of the population will be accessing the Internet through mobile devices in the future. "I'd like to think that cheap mobile Internet access could turn out to be one of the small factors that improve education and create economic opportunities for Haitians in the long run," he says. "But in the face of so much suffering, they obviously have much more serious and immediate concerns to deal with this year."

Portions of this article appeared on IEEE Spectrum Online on 27 January.

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