Haiti aid effort backed up by WiFi network

Relief centres joined by wireless links

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The exploratory trip last month by San Francisco-based nonprofit Inveneo might have been fairly routine, or at least as routine as things can be for a group that brings information technology to poor countries all over the world. Members of its team would go to yet another country and meet with nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) there to talk about their connectivity needs and discuss ways they could work together to aid the local population. Inveneo, founded about five years ago, had done similar work with partners in 23 countries, including Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan and Nepal.

But this time, the country was Haiti, and Inveneo's team was scheduled to arrive on January 16. Four days before the trip, the country's strongest earthquake in 200 years flattened much of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. The disaster suddenly made Inveneo's help even more critical and dramatically changed its mission.

NetHope, a consortium of IT executives from more than 29 international aid organisations, asked Inveneo to help set up emergency communications across Port-au-Prince, where the power grid was out and phones barely worked. A partner, CHF International, had given NetHope access to a satellite VSAT (very small aperture terminal), but it would take additional wireless networks to extend that connectivity out to where all the various organisations were working.

Before the end of the week, Inveneo agreed to respond and got enough donated Wi-Fi equipment from vendors and distributors to link up 15 to 20 locations, said Mark Summer, Inveneo's chief innovation officer.

"By Monday evening, we had left San Francisco with all the gear we needed," Summer said. It was a little more than two pallets full of equipment.

A two day journey finally brought the Inveneo team to Haiti on Wednesday, January 20, just over a week after the quake. Cellular systems and Internet service provider networks were still unreliable, and when they worked, they were overwhelmed with calls, Summer said. Meanwhile, it was more urgent than ever for international aid groups to coordinate their work and tell the world about the state of the country.

The VSAT had dramatically boosted the amount of available bandwidth, delivering 2.5Mbps (bits per second) downstream, though only 512K bps upstream. By stringing together a series of Wi-Fi links around the VSAT, like spokes in a wheel, Inveneo set out to bring that bandwidth to farflung facilities run by many different groups. In just a few days, Inveneo pieced the network together from off the shelf equipment, which included both typical wireless LAN access points and long range gear designed for wireless ISPs, Summer said. Another piece of equipment Inveneo installed was a small, low-power Linux server that it uses as an Internet access gateway for data caching and bandwidth management.

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