Technology Comes to the Rescue in Haiti

International aid workers are scrambling to rebuild communications in Haiti following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, while people outside the country are using high-tech means to raise money for relief.

By Stephen Lawson
Fri, January 15, 2010

IDG News Service — International aid workers are scrambling to rebuild communications in Haiti following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, while people outside the country are using high-tech means to raise money for relief.

The quake, which leveled much of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, also cut off many forms of communication in the country, according to an eyewitness report provided to IDG News Service by the United Nations Foundation on Friday. That organization, along with the World Food Program (WFP), Telecoms Sans Frontiers and other organizations, are bringing in new equipment to reconnect citizens and aid workers with the rest of the world.

Communications links are critical for people in the area to check in with loved ones, and for aid groups to coordinate within the country and send word about current conditions.

The initial quake shut down landlines and a satellite telecommunications system used by the WFP, as well as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) service, according to a comment posted on an internal WFP message board. The message was posted Thursday morning by Pierre Petry, a senior ICT (Info-Communication Technologies) specialist at the World Food Program, who was working in the northern city of Cap-Haitien when the earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince.

"The Port-au-Prince VSAT (very small aperture terminal) is out of order, the landlines and GSM phone lines are dead. Port-au-Prince Country Office can not be reached anymore even by e-mail or Lotus Notes, as the FoodSat (VSAT satellite unit) is probably damaged," Petry wrote. Trying to reach the WFP station in the capital, he finally was able to get through using HF (high-frequency) radio. HF radio is similar to shortwave.

The day after the quake, Petry found an unused satellite communications device called an iDirect BitSat at the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti in Gonaives, also in the northern part of the country. In the comment, Petry wrote that he planned to take that device to Port-au-Prince in the south, under a military escort from the mission.

Several other international groups also quickly responded to the disaster with communications equipment and assistance. The ITU (International Telecommunication Union) said Thursday it was immediately deploying 40 satellite terminals for basic communications, along with 60 other terminals with satellite broadband capability. The agency said it would also set up a Qualcomm (QCOM) Deployable Base Station, a complete cellular system in a compact, self-contained unit.

Telecoms Sans Frontiers, an organization that provides communications for citizens and aid workers in areas of crisis around the world, said Wednesday it was deploying two emergency response teams to Haiti and would be offering free two-minute phone calls anywhere in the world so people in the country can talk with their loved ones. Most Haitians have relatives in the United States. This is the group's fifth deployment to Haiti since 2003, including missions following hurricanes Gustav and Hanna.

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