20 January 2010 With access to information vital for making crucial decisions on how best to get help to some 3 million victims of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is rushing to enlarge the emergency communications network it has set up in a country where an already weak infrastructure has been destroyed.
Within 24 hours of the 12 January quake WFP – which plans to distribute 10 million ready-to-eat rations in the coming week – had already sent its Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) to the ravaged capital, Port-au-Prince, bearing laptops, satellite phones and VHF radios from the agency’s IT (information technology) centre in Dubai.
Once on the ground, they set up a makeshift office in a garden inside the compound of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and set to work, restoring the mail server, establishing steady voice and data services, and a VSAT wireless voice and data link independent from the established but damaged infrastructure.
Now, a week later, the FITTEST office in the compound garden is a mini communications hub, allowing up to 100 humanitarian workers precious voice and data access within and outside the country. As well as enabling operations to help disaster victims, communications are also important for the safety of aid workers. The WFP team has set up a 24/7 radio room to keep contact with them as they move across Haiti.
Meanwhile, more equipment is on the way. A self contained cellular network has been dispatched from Brindisi, Italy. Once up and running, it will be able to handle data and phone calls from some 5,000 devices. Another three metric tons of material, satellite equipment, phones, computers and radios is being dispatched from Dubai.
“We have basic connectivity,” WFP specialist in IT network design William Gonzalez said. “But there are the obvious problems of limited phone lines and limited bandwidth, which is something we will need to address as the humanitarian community in Haiti increases in number.”
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