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Helping Haiti: Back from Port-au-Prince

by: Mindel DeLaTorre, Chief of the International Bureau

February 5, 2010 - 03:14 PM

Prior Postings:January 14, January 15, January 20, January 28

I have returned from Haiti and am back at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C. As I explained previously, our mission to Haiti was at the request of the Haitian telecommunications regulator, Conatel, and in coordination with USAID (which is leading the US Government efforts in Haiti). Though I have traveled all over the world, and have worked with communications regulators in small and developing countries like Haiti, I have never had quite the experience we had in Haiti. Our U.S. Communications Sector Assessment Team spent a week in Haiti (a few of the members were there longer). What we saw and what we learned was amazing. The extent of the destruction of the communications facilities was significant. Yet, the resilience and determination of both the Haitian government and private industry to get communications services back up and running was profound – this was despite overwhelming loss of family, friends and staff in addition to damaged buildings, roads and homes. And nonetheless, there was a marked “uptick” in the streets of Haiti from when we arrived until when we left. By our last full day (Saturday, January 30), the people were a little less shell-shocked and certainly more purposeful – selling fresh vegetables on the streets, cleaning up debris, re-stacking demolished walls and smiles came more easily on their faces. To me, the people of Haiti are remarkably kind and patient and we found them to be very appreciative of any and all help.

We met with about twenty-five representatives from the telecommunications industry in Haiti. The government meetings included Conatel, the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Communications, and the National Police. During the whole mission, we worked very closely with Conatel Director General Marcelin, his staff member Mr. Alexander, and representatives of USAID. We talked to company managers and owners of the wireline company TELECO, the wireless carriers, the Internet service providers. We also conducted many visits of destroyed or damaged facilities and headquarter buildings. I was especially struck when we went to visit the FCC’s counterpart Conatel. Its existing building has huge fissures through it making it uninhabitable (like so many buildings in Haiti) but it is still standing. However, what was even more stunning was when we went to what was supposed to be the five-story new Conatel headquarters building – which now is only a pile of rubble. Had the earthquake happened a few months later and during business hours, our Conatel colleagues would have suffered unimaginable loss.

I tried to meet up with the Telecom sans Frontieres crews who are providing free international calls in many of the refugee camps around Port-au-Prince (and now outside the city as well), but due to tremendously difficult logistical issues, I was not able to meet up with them. I did, however, chat with their staff about the wonderful work that they are doing in Haiti – as the very first telecom responder in Haiti they have played a key role in connecting the victims of the earthquake with loved ones around the world. You can see more about what they are doing in Haiti at TSF’s website.

I want to tell you about a special need in Haiti now – the radio and TV stations. The earthquake affected all of Haiti’s communications infrastructure, but the damage to radio and TV stations has been particularly debilitating because they are normally staffed 24/7 so the proportional loss of life and building and equipment damage was enormous. The impact of the earthquake has strained the ability to spread information about humanitarian relief and other messages, not to mention music and recreational programming. A good thing about broadcasting is that it can reach so many people at once – when it’s working. Now more than ever, radio and TV are critical sources of information for the people of Haiti – regarding location of food and water distribution, medical services, shelter, weather, etc. By the time we left, only six of 18 TV licensees were on the air, and their operations were intermittent. The two licensed AM radio stations were off the air because they couldn’t afford the fuel needed to run the generators that would power their transmitters. Of the 40 licensed FM stations, 30 were on the air, with a few able to operate between 12-16 hours per day. Damaged facilities and equipment, limited fuel and lack of advertising revenue are really hurting the broadcasters in Haiti now.

To help improve this situation, at the FCC, we are working with U.S. broadcast organizations to facilitate any assistance possible for the Haitian broadcasters – from equipment to programming. There is an organization on the ground in Haiti called the Internews Network. Internews is an international media development organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people needed news and information. It has responded to other disasters around the world and is in Haiti trying to help improve the broadcasting situation. At the FCC, we’re also exploring ideas to see what could be done to support Haiti’s broadcast media.

Although we’ve completed our on-the-ground assessment in Haiti, that’s just the beginning. We’re busy at the FCC writing a report about our communications sector assessment in Haiti, and are simultaneously addressing specific issues like the needs of the broadcasters. We have a lot more work to do to help Haiti regarding its communications services – for a long time to come. The FCC’s commitment to do so is strong and continuing. Thanks for your interest in this important work. I’ll keep you posted.

Updated: April 16, 2012 - 04:14 PM
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