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A man tries to talk on his cellphone Jan. 12 in Port-au-Prince, the day a major earthquake rocked Haiti.

Frederic Dupoux/2010 Getty Images

Some time Tuesday, a United Nations cargo plane is scheduled to take off from Brindisi, Italy, bound for the capital of Haiti. Inside will be thousands of mobile phones, four volunteers and a two-tonne box that may contain the answer to the prayers of aid workers trying to help survivors of last week's earthquake.

The box, which is about the size of a large garden shed, is a self-contained cellular network built by Ericsson. Once on the ground, it can be deployed to create a network capable of handling data and phone calls from 5,000 devices - a small but crucial piece of the puzzle of how to move essential supplies around the devastated country.

Along with reducing buildings to rubble, the earthquake that hit Haiti last Tuesday obliterated the country's already-feeble telecommunications system. That has hampered the ability of humanitarian groups to deliver urgently needed aid and prevented anxious Haitians from contacting their family members and other loved ones.

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Telecom experts from Nicaragua and France, equipped with satellite phones, have landed in Port-au-Prince to set up emergency communications centres for distraught survivors and aid workers.

"Telecommunications is essentially the basic link to co-ordinate any form of assistance," said Cosmas Zavazava, who heads the emergency response section at the UN agency devoted to global telecom affairs.

But even as agencies scramble to erect an emergency communications system, agencies want to ensure Haiti's telecom sector will be in better shape for the next disaster.

Soon after the earthquake struck, Télécoms Sans Frontières, a French non-governmental organization, dispatched a three-member team from its regional office in Nicaragua. A six-person crew from the group's headquarters in southwest France followed.

Both are on the ground now, allowing desperate Haitians to call out of the country. "All of the calls were international," said the organization's Catherine Sang, with 95 per cent of them to the United States. "Before they get food or water, they want to make sure their family is alive."

Like Doctors Without Borders, TSF is a group that operates in stricken areas with a specific professional expertise. It sprang from the experiences of French aid workers, who were constantly approached by survivors desperate for information about their family and relatives.

Some local mobile phones still work: people have even texted from the rubble. But the strained cellular network reaches capacity very quickly, Ms. Sang said, which makes the system unreliable.

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Texts from trapped survivors may sit in a network queue for more than 24 hours before they get delivered, Mr. Zavazava of the UN's International Telecommunication Union said in Geneva.

Throwing $1-million (U.S.) into its efforts, the ITU has already established 60 satellite and broadband centres around Port-au-Prince and begun work with the communications ministry and the local telecom regulator. His agency has pleaded with member states for additional funding.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has a communications system to match. There is almost no land-line phone service: In 2009, less than 2 per cent of the population had a home phone. Instead, as in many poor countries with weak governments and few public services, Haitians have come to rely on mobile phones. But even this is relatively new. Less than 4 per cent of Haitians had a cellphone by 2003. Five years later, that number was up to about 33 per cent, spurred by fresh competition and lowered prices.

However, the fixed-line service is now destroyed and the wireless network is groaning under the strain.

One of Haiti's main wireless carriers, Digicel Group Ltd., has been scrambling to get services up and running since the Jan. 12 quake. But four flights with technicians and experts were turned away from Haiti's airport last week, because of the lengthening bottleneck created by aid shipments and disorder.

There is also an international effort among telecom companies. Some, such as Cogeco Cable Inc., have offered free long-distance calling to Haiti. AT&T has donated to Télécoms Sans Frontières. Some Canadian wireless carriers have enabled text donations. And that two-tonne cellular network awaiting shipment in Italy belongs to Ericsson.

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But even as technicians continue to co-ordinate emergency services, the ITU is also preparing for sweeping assessments of Haiti's communications infrastructure, to ensure that future aid and services can be co-ordinated properly.

"When disasters strike, we should be able to have systems that are on standby that can be activated and used, even if the rest of the network is down," Mr. Zavazava said. "That is one of the things that we would like to help them with."

Usually, much of this crucial information would reach the masses through the country's media, especially radio, given Haiti's high illiteracy rate. But Haiti's media has suffered from the telecommunications breakdown, as well.

Yves Colon, a Haitian-born journalism lecturer at the University of Miami, took this coming semester off work so he can go back to Haiti and help rebuild the country's media sector with Internews, a not-for-profit organization. He spent the three years to 2006 working with 40 community radio stations there, building some up from scratch and strengthening others.

"Internews is going there to help get the media back up and working," Mr. Colon said. "It's more than ever necessary. People don't know where things are. The government is totally broken."

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