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Originally published January 14, 2010 at 9:08 PM | Page modified January 15, 2010 at 11:48 AM

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Bellevue firms help Haiti with wireless service, donations

As the largest U.S.-headquartered company operating in Haiti, wireless provider Trilogy International Partners had a huge task trying to bring back its phone infrastructure and dealing with other logistical difficulties after Tuesday's devastating earthquake.

Seattle Times business reporter

As the largest U.S.-headquartered company operating in Haiti, wireless provider Trilogy International Partners had a huge task trying to bring back its phone infrastructure and dealing with other logistical difficulties after Tuesday's devastating earthquake.

But in a country where almost no one has a landline phone, those wireless connections would be vital for emergency relief work.

Bellevue-based Trilogy provides one-third of Haiti's phone connections through its wireless subsidiary Voilà. With 500 employees, the company is one of the largest employers in Haiti and has operated there for a decade. It won the Award for Corporate Excellence from the U.S. State Department last month for making a positive impact on the Haitian economy.

"We are essential infrastructure on a normal day," Trilogy Chairman John Stanton said from Bellevue. "In times of crisis the most important thing is getting our system back on the air."

Within two hours of the quake, Trilogy chartered a plane from Miami, carrying 14 engineers, plus radios, batteries and water. They landed in Port-au-Prince early Wednesday with help from the U.S. State Department and Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti.

Although the wireless service was down for much of Wednesday, local staff and the engineers from Florida worked feverishly to get it restored by midnight. Locals in Haiti said people who were trapped under debris have called out for help from their cellphones, The Associated Press reported.

Mobile technology was proving important to Haiti in another way after the quake.

In Bellevue, another wireless-industry veteran, Jim Manis, scrambled to get help to Haiti in the form of mobile donations. His Mobile Giving Foundation links nonprofits to mobile-phone users, allowing people to send donations by text message and pay for it on their monthly bill.

The earthquake has been "a watershed event," Manis said. In the past 36 hours, more than $7 million was raised for earthquake relief through mobile donations, which "exceeded all money we've raised through mobile giving since we began," he said.

The foundation, started in 2007, processes donations for a dozen charities helping Haiti, including International Medical Corps, the Clinton Foundation Haiti Relief Fund and Yéle Haiti, a nonprofit founded by musician Wyclef Jean. Donations have come in at a furious pace.

At the peak, "we hit 10,000 messages per second last night," Manis said. Since processing the donations can take 90 days, Manis said he has been working with companies such as Verizon to push funds through faster. Carriers may decide to pay the donations as soon as customers pledge, rather than after billing, he said.

Wireless-industry veteran Stanton has worked all over the world and experienced the devastation of hurricanes and other crises at home and in developing countries. Nothing compares to Haiti, he said. The country already is overburdened with unreliable infrastructure, political instability, deforestation, poverty and homelessness.

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"It's just beyond imagination how many bad things have happened to Haiti," he said.

Trilogy was fortunate that its building did not collapse and its employees all survived, Stanton said. Trilogy CEO Brad Horwitz arrived in Haiti on Thursday to assess the situation and support the company's local employees. Trilogy also operates in the Dominican Republic, so it has been able to send supplies by land from the adjacent country.

In Haiti, which lacks a functioning power grid in normal times, Voilà's cellular towers run on diesel generators. Damage from the quake had knocked out a line between the fuel tanks and generators. Getting trucks to deliver fuel and repair lines was a challenge across Haiti's damaged roads.

Voilà's network is up and running for domestic and international calls, but 30 percent of the cell sites remain damaged. With aftershocks, "a bridge there yesterday might not be there tomorrow," Stanton said.

Longer term for the country, "there's almost an unlimited amount of things that have to be done," he said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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