In Depth

The Scramble to Cover Haiti Via Satellite

By Hillary Atkin

When a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, news organizations around the world scrambled to get their people to the devastated Caribbean country to cover the huge story that unfolded, and which dominated the news cycle for weeks.

With the infrastructure on the island crippled by the disaster, one of the biggest challenges was getting live pictures out. Within hours, however, communications links via satellite were being established to broadcast news from Haiti to the rest of the world.

Intelsat, the leading provider of fixed satellite services, immediately began work on allocating capacity on its birds to news entities and was able to get a coordinator on the ground before Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince was shut down.

“Whenever anything sudden and urgent happens, we get calls instantly,” said Timothy Jackson, Intelsat’s vice president of media product management.

“Together with one of our customers, we chartered an aircraft out of Miami to Port-au-Prince right before [the Haitian airport] was closed. It was tough to get in, with no power, but the weather allowed them to go in visually and get started.”

Shortly afterward, broadcasters from around the world began arriving at the airport and began using the facilities that were set up on the ground. “Everything that could have been used to transmit from Haiti was pretty much dead,” said Jackson. “We came in with equipment and generator power to set up a temporary uplink right away, providing on-site coordination and transmission services to media outlets. We were really the only ones on the ground, and the first one to establish communications.”

By the next day, Intelsat had two communication networks in operation — one in C-band and one in Ku-band — servicing clients including CNN, CBS, the BBC, Reuters, and independent services such as Arqiva and On Call Communications that provide services to downstream video content to other customers — a total of 27 global broadcasters.

“It was like a war zone. We had one guy, Special Events Coordinator Neil Butterfield, working 24 hours a day and eating food he brought in until he got infrastructure,” Jackson said. “We came in and effectively operated in a corner of the airport with portable equipment that was brought in. It was initial chaos. The [Haitian] military had to organize things. The team was operating inside the airport perimeter, not accessible to be public. They had come with food and water. It started becoming crazy and the local military kept order.”

For the first eight days after the earthquake, Intelsat remained at the uplink location at the Port-au-Prince airport to ensure 24-hour services were available at a moment’s notice. By Jan. 22, it had uplinked more than 500 hours of video content.

SES World Skies also provided capacity on its satellites to news organizations on the ground in Haiti. Its clients include Al Jazeera English, which, after the chaos of the airport, set up a bureau at a local hotel, as did many of the other broadcasters covering the tragedy.

“Satellite networks play a quintessential role in disaster recovery when speed is at essence,” said Rob Bednarek, president and CEO of SES World Skies. “We acted immediately, so our satellites could quickly provide the vital communication links for the benefit of the people of Haiti, who have been struck by one of the worst natural catastrophes in history.”

Satellite industry executives say that compared to other recent major disasters, like the recent earthquake in Chile or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the situation in Haiti was unique because of the island’s destroyed infrastructure and major transportation challenges in getting to the disaster zones.

“It’s pretty rare to have a situation like this,” said Jackson. “During Hurricane Katrina, we had the ability to move equipment in and out and that made it a lot easier. You could drive into New Orleans, and the surrounding regional airports were operational. In Haiti, there was no way to get to where we needed to get to, other than the way we did it.”

Rapid deployment is a necessity in any such situation, and the satellite industry met the myriad of challenges in responding to the magnitude 7.0 Haitian earthquake, which ended up killing an estimated 230,000 people, injuring 300,000 and leaving about 1 million people homeless.

“You have to always be ready, expect the unexpected, and have flexibility to go into a situation as well prepared as possible and in a flexible manner,” Jackson said. “You’re not afforded the ability to have a meeting and discuss what’s going on for several hours. It’s a matter of reacting as quickly as possible. It’s also critical to be as flexible as possible.”

The satellite industry — in addition to providing its services to government agencies and humanitarian organizations — also supported Haiti’s immediate communication requirements and established a foundation for rebuilding its long-term communications infrastructure after its terrestrial and wireless communication networks failed.