Communications A Priority In Disaster Zone

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Telecoms Sans Frontieres and other groups work solely on restoring telecom services in Haiti, which is crucial to the larger aid effort.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In a natural disaster, phone service can be almost as critical as food and water. In Haiti, phone service was damaged by the quake, but messages are still getting out.

NPR's Martin Kaste explains how.

MARTIN KASTE: One of the first outside aid groups to get to Haiti after the quake was Telecoms Sans Frontieres, or in English, Telecom Without Borders. The group's American representative, Paul Margie, says it was started a decade ago by relief workers who'd been to the war zones in the Balkans.

Mr. PAUL MARGIE (Representative, Telecom Without Borders): They would go and they carried a satphone with them. And again and again, the people wanted access to that satellite phone even more than the clothes or the food that they were bringing. And so they changed and they said, let's make an organization that focuses on the communication.

KASTE: Today in Haiti, they've set up a satphone station at the U.N.'s logistics base. Reached on that line, Binwa Chauxbrier(ph) says they've also provided portable satphones to key people.

Mr.�BINWA CHAUXBRIER: We provided the first satellite line, (unintelligible) phone number to the (unintelligible) prime minister.

KASTE: Now that they've given the prime minister a satphone, the group is planning to set up cyber cafes for regular Haitians where they could make calls and send emails via satellite, but not yet. Chauxbrier says the situation in the streets is still too desperate as people are focused on finding food and water.

Mr.�CHAUXBRIER: (unintelligible) not receiving any water.

(Soundbite of phone cut off)

KASTE: Hello? That's the other problem with satphones besides the audio quality: They'll drop you without warning. The best solution for Haiti long term is a restored commercial phone network, and there are already people working on that.

Mr.�JOHN STANTON (Chairman, Trilogy Partners): Those folks, I'm pretty sure haven't slept in at least 24 and probably 48 hours.

KASTE: John Stanton is chairman of Trilogy Partners, a U.S. company that runs a cell-phone system in Haiti called Voila. Its technicians have already reconnected the network to the outside world. The issue now is keeping local cell towers running. And here, Stanton says, Haiti's poor infrastructure has suddenly become an unexpected advantage.

Mr. STANTON: Haiti is one of the relatively few places in the world where you really can't rely on power at all, commercial power at all. So in every location we have a fuel tank.

KASTE: Those fuel tanks power generators, which means many of the cell towers are up and running right now, even as the city's electricity grid remains a shambles.

Mr.�STANTON: We've got two to three days of fuel at each site. If we can't get to that site because it's inaccessible either the roads are out, or there's too much damage if we can't get a fuel truck there, we will at some point run out of fuel.

KASTE: So right now the priority for these high-tech cell phone companies is keeping up deliveries of old-fashioned diesel. Stanton says most of his company's network is working in Port-au-Prince, and other cell-phone providers are in a similar position. The reason people are having trouble getting through, he says, is that they're overloading the system.

Mr.�STANTON: It's almost impossible to get people to take this advice, but the best thing you can do is if you get a busy signal, give it five minutes or give it 10 minutes and then dial again, rather than to continually hit the send button.

KASTE: And for those who are desperate for just some sign of life from a friend or loved one, Stanton says the most reliable method right now is text messaging. A text uses very little bandwidth and it sits patiently on the network until it has an opportunity to get through. Right now cell phone users in Port-au-Prince report that texting is their most reliable means of talking to each other and to the outside world.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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