NGO networks in Haiti cause problems for local ISPs

Temporary networks are interfering with local networks and taking away potential business

While the communications networks that aid groups set up quickly following the earthquake in Haiti were surely critical to rescue efforts, the new networks have had some negative effects on the local ISP community.

Now, more than a month after the earthquake devastated the island nation, local ISPs (Internet service providers) in Haiti are starting to grumble about being left out of business opportunities and about how some of the temporary equipment -- using spectrum without proper authorization -- is interfering with their own expensive networks, causing a degradation of their services.

The aid organizations could better help Haiti in the long term by hiring the local companies, one Haitian with close ties to the ISP community said. "In order to help rebuild the economy, it would be better if they purchased from the local providers," said Stéphane Bruno, a Haitian IT consultant who works closely with the ISPs.

The local ISPs are struggling because so many of their business and consumer customers are simply out of business or can no longer pay for services. The ISPs would welcome the business of the NGOs, Bruno said.

The local companies may be disappointed to learn that late last week the NGO community asked the provider of a temporary network many of them use to give them another 30 days of service.

Inveneo, the company that built a temporary network using satellites and Wi-Fi that is being used by a group of NGOs in Haiti, defends its work and says it has done its best to be sensitive to the local ISPs. NetHope, a consortium of NGOs, approached Inveneo in the early days after the quake and asked it to build a network for the relief groups, said Mark Summer, chief innovation officer at Inveneo. "We felt at that point it made sense from a relief perspective to respond really fast," he said. It was critical for the NGOs to have reliable Internet connections so they could coordinate among relief workers and access resources like Google maps, he said.

Immediately after the earthquake the local ISPs were indeed overwhelmed, although because of the way their networks are built, they may have been able to respond relatively quickly to the NGOs' needs.

Despite the many early reports of a communications blackout in Haiti, the core Internet backbone in the country survived the quake.

Bruno had worked with a team of people, including Steve Huter, a project manager at the Network Startup Resource Center, to build Haiti's Internet Exchange Point. That project, which allows ISPs to route local traffic locally instead of sending it far away first, was just completed in May 2009. The NSRC is an organization that helps developing countries build international networking infrastructure and was initially funded by the National Science Foundation. The NSF as well as corporations continue to support the group, which works out of the University of Oregon's computing center.

From his base in Oregon, just hours after the quake, Huter remotely checked on the servers in the Internet Exchange Point in Haiti. "I was able to determine that none of them had lost connectivity or service in the earthquake," Huter said. "Those machines were operational."

What wasn't operational, however, were all the wireless antennas that ISPs in Haiti typically use to distribute Internet access across Port-Au-Prince. But repairing those wireless links in order to restore service is a lot easier than if they had to repair wired lines to each individual user.

Still, the local ISPs were quite busy trying to assess damage to the network, and they were short-staffed because some workers feared aftershocks and were reluctant to enter telecom facilities, Bruno said. In addition, with electricity down in most of the city, they were left with the issue of powering the wireless base stations. That meant they didn't have the capacity to reach out to the NGOs, Bruno said.

Now, the ISPs may have to wait even longer to begin to serve these new customers. Late last week, NetHope and Inveneo began talking to the NGOs about transitioning off the temporary network. "The feedback given was that they'd like to keep this network operational for another 30 days. They did not feel they were quite ready to take on that logistical effort of coordinating [a transition to a new network] when they are still involved with day-to-day food distribution, shelter work and other things," Summer said.

Tags HaitiISP

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Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service

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