Cellcos, WiMAX operators, vendors, other organisations battle to restore communications

18 Jan 2010

Various reports have documented the progress made by communications providers to restore vital services over the last few days following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, but also the challenges that are hampering their efforts. On Friday 15 January US company Trilogy International, which owns the Comcel (Voila) GSM mobile network serving around one million Haitians, underlined the problem of inadequate power supply, saying that although the network is up, the power is not sustainable. The cellco pointed out that even before the earthquake, Haiti’s electricity grid only provided for about eight hours of daily power, with diesel generators required for the remainder of the day. Members of the Trilogy/Voila disaster recovery team have been assessing the damage to each of its 300 or so cell sites across Haiti, and the company said its next step is to finish restoring wireless data services based on GPRS and EDGE systems.

Three of the leading local ISPs, Hainet, Multilink and Access Haiti, use broadband fixed wireless access (BFWA) systems for connectivity, including certified WiMAX networks and pre-WiMAX equipment, and their technicians have also been working to restore damaged wireless infrastructure. Two of these firms, Access Haiti and Hainet, were previously reported as non-operational following the earthquake, but had both restored services by Friday, local sources said (although access in different areas could depend on localised damage). A reporter affiliated with one organisation on the ground, Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG), said during an interview on Skype via WIMAX that ‘companies like Access Haiti are able to keep their services up and operational.’ Meanwhile, people have queued to make IP phone calls from Access Haiti’s premises, whilst IDT Corporation, an international telecoms provider, is working with the ISP to set up calling stations in hotels and other central sites to allow Haitians to use the IDT VoiceLine service for international calls. The IP phone service does not depend on the local landline network operated by Teleco, which experienced significant damage in the earthquake.

Also on Friday, Chinese equipment provider ZTE Corporation delivered solar-powered GSM handsets and its ‘GoTa’ trunking system to the Haitian government. The equipment includes GoTa digital trunking base stations and temporary-use mobile diesel engines. Previously, ZTE’s GoTa systems were used as part of a relief programme following the May 2008 earthquake in China’s Sichuan region. Other international telecoms vendors are also involved in relief efforts: the Ericsson Response team was sent to Haiti to establish mobile communications through a container-based mini GSM system.

In related news, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) said last Thursday it was immediately deploying 40 satellite terminals for basic communications in Haiti, 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.

Haiti, Access Haiti, Comcel/Voila (became part of Digicel), Ericsson, ZTE