A patch antenna and Ubiquiti Bullet combination, installed by Inveneo on a roof in Port-au-Prince as part of the work of NetHope in Haiti. (Photo via Andris Bjornson of Inveneo)
Former Microsoft executive Frank Schott is heavily involved in efforts to restore and rebuild online communications in Haiti as global program director and emergency practice director for NetHope, a technology coalition of international humanitarian agencies.
In an interview, Schott discussed the impact of the Jan. 12 earthquake on the telecommunications infrastructure and explained the behind-the-scenes technical details of the initiative to reestablish online service for those agencies in the country.
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.
Q: Your home in Bellevue was the hub for a lot of the coordination, because of your role.
Schott: It was, it was. It’s been a lot of phone calls and a lot of coordination between the U.N. and our corporate partners and the NGOs. It’s been a blur. It’s huge, but I love it. I actually view it as a privilege, to be able to use my craft to help in some way. It’s definitely an adrenaline rush, that’s for sure.
Q: You recently went to Haiti. What did you do there, and what was the outcome?
Schott: We were working with our local partners there, the local ISPs and a local support organization to essentially begin the process of transitioning this service over to local interests, completely, by the end of June. The second big challenge right now in Haiti is that there’s a huge shortage of IT professionals. It was already a country that had a shortage before the earthquake. Some left after the earthquake, and now you have an almost tripling of the size of the humanitarian workforce, and so you have quite an understandable need for engineers. We’re embarking with Microsoft and Cisco and Accenture on a program to essentially skill up the IT sector in Haiti in preparation for a long rebuilding process.
Q: What lessons can be drawn from what happened to Haiti’s infrastructure?
Schott: There was a quote from John Stanton at Trilogy, who had it right. Trying to rebuild the copper-wire solutions isn’t the way to go. Wireless is where it’s at. Point two is, when you think about emergency response, most people think about reactionary things. We’re far better off investing in emergency preparedness, which is having people trained, having the equipment ready to go, and you can’t do that in all 180, 200 countries, but you certainly can invest in organizations like NetHope and others. When there’s an emergency they’re able to respond and make things happen. It’s too late, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks after an emergency to get in there and help with essential core communications capabilities, because by that time the rescue efforts are over.
Photo of Schott by Marcus Donner/Puget Sound Business Journal