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Emergency telecommunications
ITU responds to earthquake-torn Haiti
 
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Photo credit: Twitpic

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and other nearby towns on 12 January 2010 killed more than 217 000 people, injured more than 300 000 and left more than 1 million homeless, according to the latest available statistics from the Government of Haiti on 12 February 2010.

“The human suffering is heartbreaking, and the damage to infrastructure is unprecedented,” said ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré. “Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that this disaster has hit a country so ill-equipped to deal with it,” Dr Touré added. Haiti has already suffered tremendous damage from successive natural disasters over the past few years.

In the immediate aftermath

Dr Touré immediately launched an appeal to all the Union’s members to help Haiti. Emergency telecommunications is a top priority for ITU, which is implementing programmes aimed at helping its Member States prepare, respond and rebuild when disasters destroy networks. This is a critical area of concern, especially for least developed countries such as Haiti, which have fragile economies and special needs.

Within the first 24 hours of the disaster, ITU deployed 40 satellite terminals which were flown by FedEx to the Dominican Republic free of charge, and then by United Nations cargo planes to Port-au- Prince. Sixty additional units, with broadband capabilities, were sent a few days later, along with a team of experts to help restore telecommunication networks. ITU and its partners also set up a Qualcomm Deployable Base Station — a complete high-speed mobile network for wireless communications. Subsequently, more satellite terminals mounted on motor vehicles for on-the-move communications were installed and commissioned. All of this equipment is being used by humanitarian aid agencies, government authorities, and the local population.

New partnerships boost relief efforts

smartBridges Solutions provides Wi-fi and WiMAX systems

Through a new partnership announced on 11 February 2010, ITU has also set up wireless systems based on Wi-fi and WiMAX technologies in over 100 hot spots around the disaster zone to provide broadband and voice connectivity to internally displaced people, as well as to aid workers and local authorities. Some 10 WiMAX base stations and 40 customer premises equipment devices were delivered to Haiti following the signing of a cooperation agreement between ITU and Singapore-based smart- Bridges Solutions, a provider of wireless broadband equipment. The company also assigned a specialist engineer to work alongside ITU experts to get the wireless network up and running.

As well as helping to strengthen ITU’s response capabilities on the ground, the agreement opens the door to future cooperation between the company and ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT) in all phases of disaster management. “I am very grateful to smartBridges Solutions for joining ITU in extending a helping hand to Haiti following this devastating disaster,” said BDT Director Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid. “I look forward to working with smartBridges Solutions, not only to help save human lives during emergencies, but to fully leverage the power of information and communication technologies to drive the ongoing development of Haiti and other developing nations,” Mr Al Basheer added.

“SmartBridges is pleased to join hands with ITU in extending ICT access to the humanitarian aid community and victims of the Haiti disaster through our wireless technologies,” said company Chairman Nimesh Parikh.

Speaking from Port-au-Prince, Cosmas Zavazava, ITU’s Chief of Emergency Telecommunications, praised smartBridges Solutions for their commitment to contributing state-of-the-art wireless technology, which he said is very much needed to support ongoing aid work.

 
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Photo credit: ITU

Collabria software to help collaboration

In another partnership announced on 16 February 2010, ITU and Collabria LLC signed a cooperation agreement to provide emergency personnel with a system that allows them to communicate and collaborate quickly across wired, wireless and private networks and the Internet, combining text, voice, video, data and large-file transfer capabilities into a single application for desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones and other Internet protocol-based devices.

Collabria software is designed to provide first responders with a secure and reliable means of communicating with other first responders, such as aid agencies and local authorities, over a centralized platform. In addition to the software, Collabria plans to send engineers to support ITU personnel in Haiti.

“My sympathy is with the people of Haiti, who are trying to rebuild their lives after this terrible tragedy. Re-establishing communication links is an essential part of the relief effort. I am delighted that Collabria has come forward to join us in this effort,” said Mr Al Basheer.

“We welcome the opportunity to support the efforts of the United Nations and ITU in the service of the people of Haiti, and ongoing humanitarian efforts globally. We want to do our part in helping others,” affirmed Dean A. Collura, Regional Director of Collabria.

Mr Zavazava commented that harmonization of communication systems for law enforcement and humanitarian agencies in major emergencies, such as the Haiti earthquake, remains one of the most daunting challenges. He said that Collabria’s software provides a common platform that will greatly enhance coordination.

Coordination

“After the earthquake struck, various organizations and the media from around the world brought in whatever equipment they could and started broadcasting without applying for licences or frequencies. This caused interferences and congestion,” Mr Zavazava explained. Before installing telecommunication equipment or using spectrum resources, the Conseil National des Télécommunications (CONATEL), Haiti’s telecommunication regulatory authority, had to be contacted in order to avoid frequency interference problems and potential conflicts between operators legally established in Haiti and those who were there to help in the wake of the disaster. However, two of CONATEL’s own offices had collapsed, making it impossible to issue licences, at least within the first 48 hours or so after the disaster. The regulatory authority has since put out a statement asking all visitors to indicate the frequencies they are using in order to regularize operations.

Regional help from CANTO and CITEL

The Caribbean Association of National Telecommunication Organizations (CANTO) has said it will work in partnership with ITU to help restore Haiti’s telecommunication infrastructure. CANTO’s Disaster Preparedness Committee convened a special meeting on 1 February 2010 and concluded that it would play a pivotal role, with the assistance of its members. Founded in 1985 as a non-profit association of telephone operating companies in the Caribbean, CANTO is now recognized as a major trade association in the telecommunication sector, both regionally and internationally.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Telecommunication Commission (CITEL) has established a joint task force with the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The mandate of the task force is to explore ways to coordinate the many offers being received by CITEL and FCC in support of Haiti’s telecommunication sector. This would facilitate deployment of equipment and services to the areas that need them most for the local population and humanitarian assistance.

To this end, the task force will compile a database (“inventory”) with information about telecommunication donors and their offers; liaise with other agencies in order to determine the most pressing needs and logistical problems to be tackled in the telecommunication sector; identify regulatory and spectrum-related issues and find appropriate solutions; and cooperate with foreign governments, international agencies (including ITU), local authorities and operators to facilitate the immediate deployment of telecommunication capabilities where required.

 
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Photo credit: AFP
A 16 year-old girl is brought to hospital after being pulled alive from the rubble of a building in Port-au-Prince by a French rescue team on 27 January 2010. Severely dehydrated and so weak she could barely talk, she managed a whispered “thank you” to her rescuers after surviving for fifteen days

Long-term rebuilding plans

Before the earthquake, about 35 per cent of Haiti’s 9 million people had mobile phones, and 11 per cent had Internet access. Connectivity has been severely reduced by the gap created by the collapse of terrestrial networks, which remain largely non-operational because of the massive damage. ITU is working with the Government of Haiti, in particular the Department of Communications, as well as CONATEL and telecommunication operators, not only to help restore services, but also to build state-of-the-art broadband infrastructure to enable the country to develop its shattered economy.

“With its small size and proximity to major global markets, Haiti is ideally positioned to transform itself through the power of advanced ICT. A world-class broadband network will not only attract companies seeking offshoring opportunities, it will deliver critical services — from education to health care to communications,” said Dr Touré. “Together, we can transform the future for those children who today stand amid the ruins of their lives. We can give them not just new hope, but the tools with which to build a dramatically different tomorrow,” he added.

ITU has sent an assessment team to Haiti to determine the extent of the damage to the telecommunication infrastructure. Based on the team’s findings, ITU will work with Haitian authorities to understand their longer-term recovery needs. “ITU stands ready to provide expertise in carrying out damage assessments, aimed at paving the way for the rehabilitation of the damaged telecommunication infrastructure,” Mr Al Basheer stated, adding that “the strength shown by the Haitian people is humbling”.

 

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