With the epicentre of the earthquake out at sea, just 10 miles from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, little infrastructure has survived in the
country. To compound the problem, those few base stations that remained operational were deluged by citizens trying to contact loved ones as well as the emergency services attempting to begin the relief effort.
In such instances, satellite communications are the first port of call since they don’t require infrastructure on the ground, and therefore can be deployed as quickly as handsets can be delivered to the disaster area. One organisation that has the influence to bring providers and equipment vendors together in disaster situations is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
‘We’re not set up to be a rapid response organisation,’ says Sarah Parkes, senior media relations officer. ‘But we do maintain partnerships with satellite providers Iridium and Inmarsat, and equipment provider Qualcomm [among others].
‘In emergencies we mobilise the satellite people as fast as possible to get free or very low cost coverage in disaster areas. Another focus of ours
is on getting public call centres set up so we can address the urgent need for disaster survivors to see if their families are safe.’
To that end, the ITU has committed a budget in excess of US$1m to support the disaster response effort in Haiti.
‘ITU will do everything possible to provide assistance to the people of Haiti by re-establishing telecommunications links, which will be vital in the rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the days ahead,’ ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Touré commented shortly after the disaster struck.
The ITU announced on 14 January that it would deploy 40 satellite terminals to re-establish basic communication links, and a further 60 units with broadband facility were, as of mid-January, being dispatched along with experts to operate them.
Dr. Cosmas Zavazava, chief of division, emergency telecommunications at the ITU, has been in Haiti since shortly after the disaster struck to co-ordinate the organisation’s efforts with first responders, the Haitian Government, local communications operators and aid agencies. ‘ITU has been involved in Haiti since the 12 January 2010 earthquake, providing telecommunication links to government agencies and humanitarian organisations including some United Nations agencies,’ he says. ‘The initial goal was to deploy various kinds of technologies to bridge the communication gaps created by the earthquake through the destruction and disruption of infrastructure.
‘The second thing was to support the regulatory authority in terms of ensuring that those agencies operating in the country received appropriate frequencies to operate legally. Thirdly, we are also providing assistance in terms of assessments to the infrastructure damage and to find ways of rehabilitating those networks. Finally, we are planning new actions to help the country develop new state-of-the-art networks.’
Zavazava’s team has overseen the deployment of broadband satellite terminals, Iridium satellite phones, mobile-vehicle mounted satellite terminals for high-speed data, Wi-Fi and WiMAX base stations, customer premises equipment and cellular base stations.
The important thing, though, is the way in which the industry has come together and reacted quickly to the crisis. ‘The industry responded rapidly,’ says Zavazava. ‘We got additional equipment within a matter of hours and the ITU then issued an appeal to its Member States and the private sector. We also received positive responses and donations in kind as well as financial contributions. The industry, particularly the local private sector, came together and made contributions to the humanitarian cause. The international private sector also made significant contributions to ensure that telecommunication facilities were in place.’
One international vendor that has provided support for the Haitian relief effort is Qualcomm. In July 2009, the company announced, as part of its Wireless Reach initiative, that it would donate a Qualcomm Deployable Base Station (QDBS) to the ITU. It enhances the ITU’s capacity to deploy mobile telecommunications to assist countries in preparing for disaster and in strengthening response and recovery mechanisms. The donation also included a commitment to the provision of up to 100 mobile phones, additional technical equipment and servicing of that equipment by its engineers. Qualcomm also committed to co-operation with the ITU for disaster relief and response including the co-ordination of disaster relief activities and resource sharing.
When the earthquake struck, Qualcomm was in the process of readying the QDBS for ITU use and, as a result of the disaster, Qualcomm accelerated its delivery to ITU disaster relief personnel in Haiti. The base station was shipped to Santo Domingo and a team of Qualcomm engineers met up with the ITU team to train them. On 23 January, the QDBS was shipped to Haiti via UN Air Shuttle and deployed in Haiti near the UN Operations Centre and Port-au-Prince airport. The deployment includes 50 mobile phones, five laptops plus aircards and an 800MHz omni antenna and cables.
Other vendors involved with the ITU in Haiti include smartBridges Solutions, a provider of wireless broadband equipment, which is providing WiMAX and Wi-Fi systems under a co-operation agreement with the ITU. The agreement has seen the delivery of 10 carrier-grade WiMAX base stations and 40 customer premise equipment devices delivered to Haiti. These will be used to set up 100 wireless hotspot locations in Port-au-Prince and other towns in the country. SmartBridges has also assigned specialist engineers to help get the network up and running as quickly as possible.
A companion to that effort is the provision of a secure, interoperable software platform for emergency communications and first responder activities provided by Collabria under a similar agreement with the ITU. Collabria’s system allows emergency personnel to communicate and collaborate across wired, wireless, private networks and the internet combining text, voice, data and large file transfer capabilities in a single application. The system claims to enhance emergency response because personnel from multiple agencies can communicate and collaborate quickly, securely and efficiently over the centralised platform it offers.
Charity Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF), which exists to address the communications issues that arise from humanitarian crises, has also been heavily involved in the Haitian relief effort. On the ground since the day after the earthquake struck, this rapid response organisation has now enabled more than 100 humanitarian organisations to benefit from connections and technical services provided by TSF experts.
TSF has installed high-speed connections in strategic co-ordination centres at the On-Site Operations Co-ordination Centre (OSOCC) at the country’s airport, at the Minustah Camp – the UN stabilisation mission in Haiti, and at the OSOCC centre in Jacmel.
At the airport, TSF established internet connections and high-speed satellite lines using BGAN (Broadband Global Area Network) terminals to the benefit of United Nations Disaster Assessment and Co-ordination (UNDAC) teams and search and rescue teams. Now the search and rescue phase of the operation has ended, that centre has closed.
At Minustah Camp, TSF opened a BGAN connection and wireless access point on 14 January, and has subsequently opened a VSAT connection for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs to address the needs of the continuous growth or rescue teams coming to Haiti. TSF has also established a long-term connection to Unicef from the camp.
At the OSOCC Centre in Jacmel, TSF has established