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Haiti’s Telecommunications Sector in the Aftermath

The scale of the devastation inflicted by Haiti’s earthquake a little over two weeks ago, meant that no industry has been left untouched by its effect. The telecommunications sector is no exception.

Ever since the earthquake struck on Tuesday 12th January, fixed line and wireless communications have been virtually unavailable. This has partly been due to the extensive physical damage to the fixed line and wireless infrastructure and partly due to congestion from spikes in the number of outgoing and incoming mobile calls.

Service has also been disrupted on the country’s main submarine cable. The submarine network, which is jointly controlled by the Haitian government-owned Telecommunications d’Haiti (Teleco) and the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC), connects Port-au-Prince to Matthew Town in the Bahamas and into the US. It is not clear how much traffic actually goes over the submarine network but fortunately Haiti depends on satellite networks for the majority of its communications links.

Whilst at least some of Haiti’s ISPs are still up and running, there have been unconfirmed reports that the country’s two largest, Hainet and Access Haiti, remained down. It is understood that approximately 70% of the leading wireless network, Digicel, is still largely operational. Although the company’s technicians were initially unable to get flights into Haiti, as priority naturally has been given to medical relief, rescue services and food aid, it is believed that technical teams have now been deployed to the country.

It is also reported that US-based Trilogy International, the parent of Haitian GSM mobile network operator Comcel (Voila), has asked the regulator Conatel to make unused frequencies in the 850MHz band available to help the relief efforts. Voila currently holds 17.5MHz in the 850MHz band and is asking for a temporary allocation of an additional 7.7MHz to help raise network capacity to cope with a surge in traffic.

The international relief organisation, Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF), has established at least three humanitarian calling centres in Port-au-Prince from which people can make free two-minute phone calls via satellite to anywhere in the world. TSF is also providing IT-support, fixed and mobile satellite connections, and multiple broadband access points for UNICEF, UNDAC, NGOs and other emergency and relief efforts. The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also been trying to provide assistance in the form of strategic advice, damage assessment and technical assistance.

Even before the earthquake, Haiti’s telecommunications infrastructure was amongst the least developed in the region if not globally. Haiti’s poorly performing Teleco controls the land-line phone service and, with less than 2% fixed-line teledensity, labours under one of the lowest penetration rates in the world. The most significant developments in the sector over the past ten years have been in the area of mobile telecommunications, largely stimulated by the entry of Digicel in 2006.

As one of the world’s poorest nations, and given its already undeveloped fixed-line network, it is unlikely that repair to fixed-line infrastructure will be a priority. Instead, in the medium to long term the damage to the fixed line infrastructure should ultimately accelerate demand for wireless and satellite communications. Satellite in particular is able to be quickly deployed and thus will provide an important stop-gap at least in the short term. In any event, following yet another tragedy in this country’s troubled history, the sector would greatly benefit from increased foreign aid and investment in the difficult months and years ahead.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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