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Technology comes to the rescue in Haiti

Telecom aid groups restore communication

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

The quake, which levelled 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 organisation, along with the World Food Program (WFP), Telecoms Sans Frontiers and other organisations, 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 on 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 email 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 on 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 Deployable Base Station, a complete cellular system in a compact, self-contained unit.

Telecoms Sans Frontiers, an organisation that provides communications for citizens and aid workers in areas of crisis around the world, said on 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.

Haiti cellular provider Voila reported on Friday that its network was up and carrying a high volume of local and international calls. It had been restored by midnight on Thursday, according to Voila, which is owned by the US company Trilogy International Partners. The company said its next step is to finish restoring wireless data service with GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution).

Meanwhile, mobile-phone users in the US donated more than $10 million to earthquake relief within 36 hours by texting 'HAITI' to the short-code 90999 from their phones. By late Friday, more than 900,000 people had donated $10 per text message, according to mGive, which is operating the donation drive for the American Red Cross. Verizon Wireless and other service providers will fast-track the funds to the relief effort, and 100 percent of the money donated goes to relief, according to mGive. Aid organizations have also successfully solicited donations via social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

The full text of Petry's message, posted Thursday morning, reads as follows:

"I was in Cap-Haitien sub office located in the north of the country giving the "GVLP Driver Training" when we felt the earthquake for about 15 seconds. Everybody rushed outside the old building.

Some minutes later, we learned that Port-au-Prince was badly hit by an earthquake. We tried to contact the WFP country office by FoodSat phone, mobile phone and landlines without any success. Finally we got in touch with the HF radio on 3.xxx Mhz.

The Port-au-Prince VSAT is out of order, the landlines and GSM phones are dead. Port-au-Prince (PaP) Country Office can not be reached anymore even by e-mail or LotusNotes as the FoodSat is probably damaged.

The following day I travelled from Cap-Haitien to PaP, but the WFP security officer denied me and my driver access to the capital. So we drove back to Gonaives sub-office.

Fortunately in Gonaives I found an unused iDirect BitSat. It was used for the Inter Agency cybercafe in 2008 during the "Ike cyclone" emergency. It was installed in the MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission) base. With the help of local staff we took down the antenna and the router, loaded the equipment on an old M6 truck and got the security clearance for PaP. Now we are ready to go tomorrow morning to PaP with an MINUSTAH military escort."


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