January 18, 2011 - 1:40 pm
By Mindel De La Torre | Chief of the International Bureau

It’s one year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti and we at the FCC, like many other organizations that have worked to help with the recovery, look back and to the future to see what awaits the country.  International organizations, including the UN, agree that much remains to be done to help Haiti’s reconstruction.  Haiti is still hurting as a result of a natural disaster that, according to new estimates recently announced by the Haitian Prime Minister, killed more than 300,000 people and affected an estimated 3 million -- a third of Haiti’s population. 

Right after the earthquake, Haitians, many of whom struggled to obtain basic services even before the tragedy, became almost totally deprived of the ability to communicate with emergency relief services, relatives, friends and the rest of the world.  Restoring of telecommunications services, however, went relatively quickly and played a major role in rescue efforts after the earthquake.  Mobile phones proved very useful in helping find earthquake victims, and volunteers developed mobile apps to help navigate through the numerous dirt roads and alleyways in Port-au-Prince.  Telecommunications will also play a large role in Haiti’s ability to advance in the reconstruction of the country and as an aid in providing health-related and other basic services to the Haitian people.

The FCC has played a role in the effort to restore Haiti’s telecommunications infrastructure.  A cross-section of FCC staff from many bureaus has taken five missions to Haiti during the past year.  A first FCC team deployed to Haiti days after the earthquake to support a FEMA Mobile Emergency Response Team, followed within days by a larger FCC team that conducted a detailed damage assessment and recommended reconstruction projects in a report to the U.S. Agency for International Development.  Subsequent teams worked hand-in-hand with CONATEL, the Haitian regulator, to conduct spectrum assessments and help restart broadcasts in northern Haiti.

Haiti’s mobile providers also contributed to significant improvements during the past year. They have actually increased network capacity beyond pre-earthquake levels, in part due to more demand and usage from aid workers and displaced families.  They also have opened a new world of financial services through mobile banking, which allows Haiti’s “unbanked” population, estimated in the hundreds of thousands, to save and transfer money via their mobile phones instead of traveling miles and waiting in long lines at the few remaining bank branches.  Last March, Digicel, a Caribbean wireless provider, launched a service in connection with Scotiabank called Tcho Tcho Mobile, winning a $2.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its efforts.  An aid organization, World Vision, tested Digicel’s service with its staff to assess its effectiveness in paying Haitians who participate in cash-for-work programs, and a number of local companies are using it to pay their employees.  In December, a joint venture of Haitian mobile provider Voilà and Unibank launched another mobile banking service called T-Cash.  The joint venture is also working with aid groups such as Mercy Corps and the International Red Cross to promote a mobile application developed in Haiti that sends targeted emergency and public health messages to Haitians via their mobile phones. 

While much remains to be done and visible progress is slow, the FCC, along with hundreds of businesses and aid groups, will continue to help in Haiti’s reconstruction efforts.