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VoIP comes alive in wartime

A Catholic mission in northern Haiti under rebel control patches together Internet phones and satellite broadband to reach the outside world.

A Catholic mission in northern Haiti is helping Internet phone services join the ranks of wartime communications.

The area surrounding the mission fell under rebel control around Sunday when all telephone and cell phone communications were cut. But by Monday, the mission was able to call its Canadian headquarters using a satellite broadband modem and its subscription to Internet phone provider Net2Phone, according to sources familiar with the situation. The mission is relying on a gas-powered electricity generator to power the patchwork system.

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Almost the entire area where the mission is located is now "depending on that setup for telephone communications," according to the source. The name of the mission, and its location, is being withheld for safety reasons.

Net2Phone is among a slew of companies that sell what's known as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), a technology for making phones calls over the Internet that's available to just about anybody with a broadband connection and a working computer. After years of overpromising and not delivering, VoIP is generating significant interest among telecom carriers, corporations and consumers, thanks to significant improvements in quality of service.

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While it remains to be seen whether the communications link in Haiti will continue to be effective, a Net2Phone representative said the usual 1 million minutes of calling a month in the country hasn't abated.

Usually in war torn areas like Haiti, networks of hovering satellites that provide broadband are the only dependable communication alternative to ground-based traditional phones that can either be destroyed or are under the control of hostile forces.

But buying specially made satellite phones is costly, making them beyond the reach of most civilians. The phones cost $500 to $1,000, and calls cost about $1 a minute. Service providers, however, have been driving the prices down.