Today we find an interesting story about how the Haitian grid was brought back to life after the January 12 earthquake. Former Microsoft exec Frank Schott worked to restore the grid with the humanitarian coalition NetHope. From the Seattle tech Magazine Tech Flash, Todd Bishop interviews Schott on his work in Haiti.
Q: What did the earthquake do to the infrastructure in Haiti?
Schott: The wireless networks for the most part were operational within 12 to 24 hours, the cell networks. What wasn’t operational was the backhaul. The fiber cable in some cases was severed, and in some cases the offices were destroyed where the data centers were. I mean, it was sheer chaos to try and figure out where could we get connectivity and then how could we share that connectivity broadly across the humanitarian sector. Communications really is the lifeline for every humanitarian response.
It’s the way humanitarian agencies communicate within country and then to the outside world to say, here’s what we need. Internet connectivity allows for email and voice over IP and the one-to-many communications that you need. And so we immediately set out to reestablish internet connectivity by identifying who had connectivity, and then essentially sharing their bandwidth with the NGO (non-governmental organization) community in Port-au Prince. So within a week we had internet connectivity restored to about 16 or 17 NGOs working in Port-au-Prince.
Q: How did you do that?
Schott: A VSAT is essentially a satellite dish which beams in connectivity from someplace else in the world -- a satellite flying over the Earth -- and brings it down into a location. It’s sort of the connectivity tool of choice in the rural developing world. There was one working at one of our members, CHF International. We used some technology from a partner named Inveneo, out of the Bay Area, they’re a nonprofit that does rural connectivity solutions. We essentially worked with them and our members to set up satellite dishes, towers, relays, to spread what was a single hotspot out 15, 20 kilometers across Port-au-Prince.
Q: What was the connectivity like? Sounds like it must have been pretty fragile and thin.
Schott: It was, but actually within three or four days after the VSAT solution was enabled, we were finally able to get connected to two ISP backhauls. So now we had three sources of connectivity up to 8 megabits of backhaul, which is like a firehose, and then we were able to share that across and load balance, so that when one ISP went down or had compromised service, we were able to switch over. Within two weeks, we actually had bandwidth that was way better than most agencies have ever seen in an emergency response.