UN telecom agency makes plans for Haiti’s present and future

3 February 2010 – Three weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ oldest agency, is still trying to re-establish reliable telephone and internet connections in the country, but also has long-term plans to help build state-of-the-art telecommunication networks there.

“We are working with the Haitian Government and operators to put in place telecommunication infrastructure that could be used for efficient and effective disaster management and for the general socio-economic development of the country,” Cosmas Zavazava, Chief of Emergency Telecommunications at the ITU, told the UN News Centre.

“Our aim is to help Haiti mobilize and deploy different kinds of technologies to mitigate the impacts of disasters. Reliable telecommunication systems can be complemented with remote sensing and GIS [geographic information systems] technology. In disaster management, a hybrid of these technologies is important,” Mr. Zavazava added.

For example, GIS technology – which is powered by the Internet – could have been used to take detailed photographs of Haiti. Those photographs could be joined to create a high-resolution map of the country before and after the earthquake. Seeing in detail the areas that were affected could help understand the extent of the damage quickly and send aid to the people most impacted.

“Haiti needs a lot of assistance. Even before the earthquake, it was one of the least developed countries in the world. It will need a strong infrastructure to run e-business, e-agriculture, e-environment, e-education, and e-health efficiently. E-applications and e-services are a critical ingredient to today’s results-based business model,” said Mr. Zavazava.

The idea of e-anything seems remote for a country where speaking on a mobile phone for longer than 10 minutes without the call dropping is a challenge.

Before the earthquake struck, about 35 per cent of Haiti’s population of about 9 million had mobile telephones, and 11 per cent had Internet access compared with more than 31 per cent of its neighbors in the Dominican Republic.

“If you are in a country like Haiti, where Internet access is low and the number of phone lines is low, and there is a hit by a disaster of this nature, connectivity becomes highly compromised. If there are no means of communicating then a human life that could have been saved is lost,” Mr. Zavazava said.

Within 24 hours of the quake on 12 January, ITU deployed 40 satellite terminals to Port-au-Prince for use by Government and humanitarian agencies to coordinate logistics and search and rescue operations. Flown to the Dominican Republic for free by FedEx, the equipment was rushed on UN transport from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince.

Since then, 60 additional units with broadband capabilities have been sent to Haiti and additional equipment is en route. An ITU team of four engineers was initially operating out of a site in Santo Domingo but is now based in Port-au-Prince.

In addition, ITU and its partners set up a mobile station that provides reliable wireless communications for humanitarian and relief workers. ITU is currently deploying WiFi and WiFiMAX (faster version of WiFi that reaches greater distances) systems that will provide over 100 hotspots for humanitarian agencies. Public call centres have been set up for provide telephone access to the general public.

ITU is also working with the Haitian Department of Communications and Conseil National des Télécommunications (CONATEL), an agency that regulates telecommunication, to restore telecom order in the country.

“After the earthquake struck, various organizations and the media brought in whatever equipment they wanted and started broadcasting without applying for licences or frequencies, creating congestion – picture a football match with no referee, where players kick and shoot wherever they want, and interference – a parking lot with no demarcation lines to define individual slots – which leads to chaos,” Mr. Zavazava said.

The result does not shut down the system, but it does slow it down, causing bad telephone reception and slow Internet connections, if they are even available.

In the coming weeks, ITU is planning to send assessment teams to Haiti to survey the extent of the damage to the cables and fibers, and plan for the reconstruction phase.


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