Quake Sets Back Haiti's Efforts to Improve Telecommunications

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The improvement in Haiti's communications in recent years suffered a severe blow from the earthquake, complicating relief efforts.

The country's new and only undersea fiber link, which carries voice and data traffic, suffered major damage from the earthquake, according to Marlon Johnson, vice president of marketing for Bahamas Telecommunications Co., which operates the link with a Haitian partner.

The base station in Port-au-Prince that links the undersea cable to the communications network in Haiti was "destroyed," Mr. Johnson said. The cable itself may still be in tact, he said, but the critical link to the network inside the country is no longer working.

That loss has made coordinating relief efforts even more difficult.

"We detected a catastrophic failure at the time of the earthquake," Mr. Johnson said. His company has been trying for two days without luck to reach its partners inside Haiti, he added.

For Haiti, which lags behind much of the rest of the region in Internet connectivity, the cable had been a major step in trying to bridge that gap.

Bahamas Telecommunications decided in 2006 that the time was right to build the link, which connects Haiti to the U.S. via the Bahamas. In April, the company with its Haitian partner for the first time opened the link to other parties, spurring further usage.

Just 11% of Haitians have Internet access, compared with more than 31% of the inhabitants in neighboring Dominican Republic and 12% in Cuba, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency.

But Haiti had been making strides in recent years, thanks in part to the new fiber link. As recently as 2002, fewer than 2% of Haitians were online, according to the ITU.

Poverty is one reason for Haiti's lack of connectivity, making a major investment in the necessary infrastructure a risky bet. The lack of infrastructure, in turn, leads to fewer opportunities and more poverty, according to telecom executives.

"Given the economic conditions there, it's a very difficult business case to make that tens of millions of dollars in investment could pay off in the short term," said Tom Soja, vice president with Ocean Specialists Inc., a Stuart, Fla.-based telecom-infrastructure company.

As a result, the country's international-communications needs have been primarily served by satellite, which is much less reliable than fiber and usually more expensive for the consumer, crimping Internet usage. The other primary linkages have been through microwave antennas running through Dominican Republic.

But in recent years, more Haitians became connected, primarily through mobile phones. Today, about 35% of the nine million people living in Haiti have mobile phones, up from just 5% in 2006, according to Digicel, the nation's largest cellphone provider. Having a taste of mobile phone connectivity likely spurred a demand for broadband, according to Mr. Johnson of Bahamas Telecommunications.

"Once mobile took off and technology got cheaper, that created demand for more reliable long-distance connectivity," said Mr. Johnson. "You need a critical mass for a fiber cable like this to become viable."

Hundreds of fiber cables traverse ocean floors around the world, providing the conduit for trade, commerce and information--the lifeblood of globalization. But a few areas, such as Haiti and until recently the east coast of Africa, have been without fiber links due to the poor promise of returns for investors.

"In some markets, the only solution is government subsidies to make it happen, and that hasn't really happened in Haiti," Mr. Soja said.

Write to Christopher Rhoads at christopher.rhoads@wsj.com

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