CTIA's Largent on wireless: Responsive and reliable in disasters

CTIA Steve LargentOn Tuesday, Jan. 12, at 4:53 p.m. EST, a 7.0 earthquake struck 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and directly impacted more than 3 million people, or one-third of its population. The toll on human life and property damage is extensive, and the challenges to providing aid are many.

In the aftermath of such a natural disaster, communications are critical as people try to find their loved ones to ensure their safety. With more than 3 million wireless subscribers in Haiti, and just 125,000 landline phones, it is a powerful reminder to all of us that mobile devices are public safety tools. We give them to our loved ones to provide that invaluable connection at a time of need.

Within 24 hours of the devastating quake, wireless service was partially re-activated. There was understandable spotty coverage and bottlenecked coverage, but the benefits wireless provided were beyond phone calls.

It allowed relief workers to best coordinate their needed efforts. Wireless helped rescue workers find individuals who were underneath collapsed buildings. In some cases those trapped in rubble used their devices to summon help. The Centers for Disease Control also used mobile devices to track the spread of diseases.

Text messaging was encouraged by the U.S. government because it's one of the easiest tools to use in a crisis. It does not require both parties to have their devices "on" to send or receive communications. It also consumes very little bandwidth, which helps public safety officials communicate with each other in times of congestion or other challenges.

The disaster in Haiti highlighted another very powerful use for texting: financial donations. When CTIA initiated mobile giving through our Text 2HELP program with the American Red Cross in 2005, we believed that smaller donations would lead to a greater adoption rate. We thought that consumers would appreciate the simplicity of sending a text message to donate money on-the-go and having it appear on their billing statements. While I'd like to say that we anticipated the $25 million that was donated within seven days to the campaign the American Red Cross instituted in Haiti, we were actually overwhelmed. The industry is honored to provide texting as a way for consumers to lend their support and we are proud to have such philanthropic customers.

As usual, we were also impressed with the wireless industry's response. Many of our members offered the services of their disaster response teams, and while many of them have seen terrible tragedies, we heard from some that this was "utter devastation" and unlike anything they had seen before. CTIA members immediately stepped up with aid, whether it was through matching employee donations or direct financial and product contributions.

While the initial rush of donations and aid was astounding, please remember the devastation for Haitians continues as they try to re-build their homes, their country and their lives.

To learn more about the industry's efforts in Haiti, please visit our blog at www.ctia.org/blog.

Steve Largent is president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry's main trade group.