(UPDATE: Photos from the FCC Team in Haiti below.)
There is much to report on developments related to the US Government’s efforts on communications services in Haiti since my last posting. I traveled with a U.S. team to Port-au-Prince, arriving before daybreak Monday, January 25. We are on-the-ground now, assessing communications needs. We joined an initial group of three FCC technical experts, who deployed to Haiti days after the earthquake to support a FEMA Mobile Emergency Response Team. Our combined team includes two of us from the FCC International Bureau, three from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, one from the Enforcement Bureau, one from the Office of Engineering and Technology and two private sector experts on the team. We are here in response to a request from Director General Montàigne Marcelin of Conseil National des Télécommunications (Conatel), the communications agency in Haiti, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said earlier today, “I am grateful that the FCC can lend a helping hand in the Haitian relief effort by providing on-the-ground support and expertise. The FCC team . . . will continue to work with Conatel and local Haitian telecommunications providers to come up with practical and sound options for restoring communications services to the people of Haiti.” (USAID and the FCC issued a joint press release today.)
The team is assessing the status of the country’s communications infrastructure and services following the earthquake. We hope to expedite identification, coordination and prioritization of communications issues, requirements and possible ways forward for restoration of communications services in Haiti.
To that end, we’ve met with the telecom agency, Conatel several times, talked with industry representatives (e.g., wireless, wireline and broadcasting) and visited a number of sites to see the damage first hand. Visits to many of the sites are simply heartbreaking, with buildings housing communications infrastructure decimated, often with loss of life.
The wireline operator, which served many government institutions, embassies and businesses in Haiti, has been severely damaged and isn’t working. Most of the general population uses cell phones and there are four wireless providers in Haiti. The wireless systems are doing pretty well under the circumstances, though they are experiencing very heavy usage, which is causing congestion of the networks, especially for international calling. You can imagine – people here want to call out and people outside want to call in –family members, friends, relief organizations.
Radio and television are important sources of news, information and entertainment in Haiti, especially now. About a third of the TV stations are operating and about 75% of the radio stations – though few of them are operational 24/7. Yesterday, I was at a TV station that had been very badly damaged. At the time of the earthquake, the station had an electronic news gathering truck on site (the first one in Haiti) – and the truck helped save the life of the owner and his wife inside because it basically created a canopy by which to crawl out of the pancaked building. Yesterday, the station was up and running, from an old container truck in a parking lot.
And, while speaking of broadcasting in Haiti, it is worth mentioning the progress on broadcasting issues back home. Since the FCC’s January 13, 2010 announcement on procedures for non-commercial educational stations to get approval for fundraising to aid Haiti relief efforts, the FCC has issued a total of 80 waivers representing approximately 413 TV/radio stations. I’m heartened that people are being so generous in helping our neighbors in Haiti.
The amateur radio community is also contributing to the relief efforts. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the amateur radio community in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere have dedicated equipment and spectrum resources to the relief efforts. For anyone wanting to help, to protect against harmful interference, it is important to go through the Haitian government before any radio equipment or spectrum resources are used in Haiti. Conatel may be reached at Number 97 of the Avenue Panaméricaine in Pétion-Ville (from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm) and throughout the day at (509) 3454-0541, (509) 2516-0000 or (509) 3702-1414, or at the following e-mail addresses: [techommunication at yahoo dot fr] or [info at conatel dot gouv dot ht].
After seeing the destruction of the country, and particularly the telecommunications infrastructure, I have a much better understanding of the monumental task to keep communications up and running in such a difficult environment. What is clear is that the communications sector is making a huge difference on a day-to-day basis for Haitians struggling with tremendous personal and property losses. We are honored to be working hand-in-hand with Conatel on the critical task of restoring communications services to our neighbors in Haiti and to all sectors of the country’s economy.
Okay, back to work. Check back for further updates.