Image: Satellite phone use in Port-au-Prince
UN Foundation
Free, satellite-based phone calls in Haiti are being made available by Télécoms Sans Frontières and the U.N. Foundation–Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.
updated 1/22/2010 9:19:54 AM ET 2010-01-22T14:19:54

Brad Horwitz has been with wireless companies that have responded to a lot of crises, man-made and natural, around the world in recent decades: "We've gone in and built networks after civil wars in Eastern Europe, military coups in Africa; we've gone through hurricanes. But nothing has ever come close to this."

"This" is Haiti. And, said Horwitz in an interview from Port-au-Prince "there is no playbook for it. This is completely off the charts."

Horwitz is chief executive of Trilogy International Partners, based in Bellevue, Wash., and the company that is Haiti's second-largest wireless operator, with 1 million customers using its Voila cell service.

"We're operating at about 80 percent of the capacity we used to have before the earthquake," Horwitz said. "All of our services are up and running again, but we still have a number of (cell) sites that are either crushed and gone in the rubble, and others in various states of repair."

Percentages, capacity, service — the words are only a part of the story. Trilogy has more than 500 employees in Haiti; at least five of them are dead, and more than 80 remain missing.

"A third of our people are homeless," Horwitz said, and he is spending as much of his time trying to arrange for tents, water, food and sanitation so Trilogy can build a settlement of sorts for those employees and their families, as he is on restoring cell service.

"It’s a completely different set of circumstances than we’ve ever had to deal with."

Cell phone operators and international relief organizations are working to get networks going again and to let those displaced by the quake contact loved ones in other countries.

Horwitz said that the 40 to 50 portable cell sites being loaned to Trinity will likely be there for a year "— at least," he said. "And every one of them will have armed security, 24/7 to protect the site and to protect the fuel" for the generators.

"Before the earthquake, the biggest challenge was power — it’s all about managing fuel and moving fuel around," Horwitz said. "The entire network runs on generators. Every (cell) site has generators. That requires fuel, and that requires security because fuel is the most sought-after commodity here."

Prepaid phone users dominate
Haiti's wireless customers are "almost entirely prepaid," he said. "The average customer here spends $8 to $9 a month. There’s no charge for an incoming call, there’s no access fee as you’re used to in the States; there’s no bundles or packages. It's just a flat, per-minute rate for outbound calls that averages about 9 to 10 cents U.S."

Digicel, Haiti's leading wireless operator with 2 million customers, says about 70 percent of its  cell sites are working now, but "there is still some congestion on the network," especially for making and receiving international calls.

The nonprofit group, Télécoms Sans Frontières (Telecommunications Without Borders), with the help of the privately funded United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, has brought in satellite phones for Haitians to use to call their families in other countries.

Also on the ground: portable equipment enabling wireless and satellite Internet and phone connections for those working on the relief effort.

Some of the equipment is so small it fits in the briefcases being carried on board planes by relief workers headed to Haiti, said Adele Waugaman of the U.N. Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership.

Among other things, the privately funded partnership is orchestrating a "humanitarian calling operation," she said. Relief workers are going into the tent cities that have sprung up around Port-au-Prince to let displaced residents know they can make free, three-minute phone calls to loved ones.

"We’re trying to help the U.N. do what it does best, which is to provide critical, life-saving medicine, food, water," said Waugaman. "If we can play a role in shoring up the communications infrastructure that enables the delivery of those badly needed supplies, then that’s our mission to support and to strengthen the good work that the U.N. is already doing."

Also, U.S. wireless carriers are donating cell phones that can be used by relief workers in Haiti, including 10,000 phones from T-Mobile, and 7,000 from AT&T.

T-Mobile is also working to "ship heavy-duty pickup trucks, portable diesel generators and temporary cell sites," said a spokeswoman for the carrier. "We are coordinating with various groups to get this equipment to ports, and onto the next Naval relief ships as quickly as possible."

Largely wireless Internet
Internet service, as most Americans know it, is vastly different and more limited in Haiti.

There are less than a dozen Internet service providers there, and they are "hindered in their operation by the unreliable dial-up access available through the inadequate copper network," said global telecommunications research firm BuddeComm in a pre-earthquake report.

Many ISPs in Haiti use wireless technologies to provide Internet access, offered at cyber cafes, with only a small number of Haitians having home Internet service.

"Out of 9.5 million people, there were probably 12,000 that had Internet capability" in their homes before the earthquake, said Horwitz.

"But again, you have to step back and realize, it is the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere. There aren’t that many computers here. And then you add to that that there’s no power. The wealthy families that have generators and can create their own power have access to the Internet, either via satellite or wirelessly."

The first cyber cafe, "Computer World" opened in 1997 in Petionville, "a small town which is home to Haiti’s wealthier elite and is not far from the grinding poverty of ... Port-au-Prince," wrote BuddeComm researcher Lawrence Baker in a report.

"Besides the few affluent Haitians, the café became quickly popular with the large number of foreigners who reside in the country, most of whom work for nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations. By using a satellite link, Computer World was able to bypass Haiti’s unreliable state telephone service."

'Poorly maintained' state phone service
The monopoly service, Teleco, is "poorly maintained" and managed, Baker wrote, drawing "constant complaints from its users. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of Teleco’s fixed lines are not functional."

Less than 2 percent of the population has Teleco's service, BuddeComm estimates. In contrast, since competition in mobile services was allowed a little over a decade ago, mobile service has soared to 39 percent penetration. Paul Budde of BuddeComm says 90 percent of mobile users are prepaid customers.

Horwitz said Voila has gotten some equipment moved to Haiti via relief ships, and "we're looking for other alternatives. We’re trying to get things accelerated quite a bit, but of course, you’re competing with all of the aid that’s coming in as well."

Land has been donated to Voila where the company's employees and families can live, he said, but it's just a start.

"There’s no plumbing, there’s no sanitation. I’m chartering in food. My guys are living on two bottles of water, a power bar and a canned protein shake. That’s what they get for the day until we can get more things in.

"As a private company, the logistics of what we’re trying to do now is something we’ve never had to do before."

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