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Setting up a wireless LAN in post-earthquake Haiti

By Duane Compton, Network World
March 23, 2010 12:55 PM ET

Network World - On March 5, I stepped off a plane at Port-au-Prince airport and was confronted by two things: oppressive heat and chaos. Down the stairs and onto the tarmac we went. It looked like a war zone. But it was actually the aftermath of the tremendous earthquake in Haiti.

Just two weeks earlier, Mads Lillelund, the CEO of my employer, Bluesocket, had asked for a volunteer for an important project -- deploying donated Bluesocket wireless LAN equipment at a Haitian hospital. A Boston-area philanthropist had assembled a team of doctors and nurses, medical supplies, clothing and technology that was going to help the St. Marc-based Pierre Payen hospital. Dow Chemical lent a plane, and Exxon donated the fuel to get us to Haiti and back. I jumped at the chance to go.

Immediately after our arrival at the airport, 12 medical personnel and I began unloading our airplane full of relief supplies. Other volunteers joined in, and soon there were a hundred or so people running to and fro, partitioning goods into piles based on their destination: clothes for the local mission, medical supplies and Bluesocket Wi-Fi technology for the hospital at Pierre Payen.

Haiti relief effort draws overwhelming flood of tech-trained volunteers

Departing from the airport, we were immediately confronted with devastated buildings and armed military guards walking amongst them. We drove two hours in a ramshackle bus from the airport to the mission in St. Marc. The mission and Pierre Payen hospital were separated by a dusty dirt highway, Route 1, where traffic regularly flew by at 60 mph. Our team would stay at the mission, and I was responsible for setting up WLAN access for both the mission and hospital.

For years, Internet access for the mission and hospital had relied on a satellite connection. The connection was available in a single room of a single building in this sprawling eight-building campus. 2G mobile-phone access was available, but not reliable as the Haitian providers sustained major infrastructure damage during the quake.

At the hospital, power was sporadic. A diesel generator ran during the day, and a battery-powered system took over at night. There were frequent power dips and surges, and we could see where neighbors had spliced into the system, desperate for power. There was no water at the hospital, and much of the equipment in the mission and hospital was broken and/or dated to the early 1980s.

Steve Mossburg, head of the mission, explained that Internet access was crucial for the doctors and other clinicians volunteering at the hospital. Reliable Internet access would allow doctors to research procedures, collaborate with colleagues stateside and request supplies, which would all improve patient care.

On my first full day, I set up a Bluesocket network controller at the main mission building, connected to the satellite modem, and began mounting access points throughout the mission property. Live wires ran everywhere, making for a heart-thumping deployment. In the end, I made it out mostly unscathed. But when it came time to deploy points across the street at the hospital, I ran into a problem -- the highway.

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