vol 3 issue 14

Here, there and everywhere

5 August 2008
By Juan Pablo Conti
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The emergency relief operations that follow natural disasters rely heavily on communications technology. E&T meets an organisation that provides rescuers with the vital phone and data links they need.

Here, there and everywhere

Telecommunication networks are among the first things to be swept away by earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, mudslides and floods. For those affected by such devastation, getting in touch with family members and friends awaiting news becomes impossible. For rescue teams trying to help those in urgent need of assistance, reliable communications can make the difference between life and death.

Ten years ago, in June 1998, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) was born with a simple mission - to help individuals and rescue organisations through the early days of a disaster. Today, this non-governmental organisation (NGO) can set up fully-equipped communication hubs, offering global voice and Internet connections, anywhere in the world less than 24 hours after a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis has begun.

Tell them I'm alive

It all started from a simple observation made by the founders of TSF, who had been working in humanitarian aid since the early 1990s.

"They would go on their holidays with convoys of food, medicines and other stuff to, for example, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania or Macedonia during the Balkans war," recalls Oisín Walton, head of communications and international relations at TSF.

"Each time they would leave a camp, people would thrust a piece of paper into their hands, asking them: 'When you go home, please call my family at this number; tell them that I'm here, uncle's been killed but I'm alive with my daughter'. After about 50 missions, they realised something needed to be done about this need for communications."

So they did something about it. They bought a satellite phone and took it with them to their next mission, to Albania in April 1998.

"They began offering free, three-minute calls to refugees so that they could get news and pass on messages directly to their families," says Walton. The success of this service, which is now called 'humanitarian calling operations', led to the creation of TSF a month later.

"Soon," says Walton, "we realised that international aid workers who were trying to help these people affected by either natural disasters or by humanitarian crises in areas where there were no telecommunication infrastructure had a critical need for reliable telecommunications, too."

In 2001 in Mazâr-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan, TSF deployed its first Emergency Communication Centre. Each of these kits is meant to provide aid agencies with everything they need to co-ordinate their work in a crisis area. The kit contains a broadband global area network (BGAN) terminal using the latest global mobile satellite technology from Inmarsat, other Inmarsat-based terminals such as Mini-M and GAN M4 for backup, and a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) satellite dish. It also includes at least two satellite phones (one of them mobile), cellular phones (to be used with local SIM cards if GSM networks are still available), and microwave relays. A host of Wi-Fi routers and access points, GPS devices, laptops, printers, scanners, and power sources ranging from solar panels to car batteries round out the kits.

The kits are put together and stored at the three permanent bases that TSF has in Pau, France (where it's headquartered), Managua, Nicaragua, and Bangkok, Thailand.

"To deploy in emergencies you need to prepare, you need to be ready whenever the emergency happens," says Walton. "You can't just wait for an earthquake to happen to say: OK, we're going to find the equipment, we're going to train the staff, test the equipment, etc.

"In each of our emergency kits, all the necessary equipment is always ready to deploy at any time. We have people in charge of making sure the equipment is always ready. We have similar kits on each of our bases so that, wherever the emergency happens, we have the same tools. The equipment we use works anywhere except in the North Pole and a few other areas where there's never an emergency."


Since 1998, TSF has deployed to more than 50 countries on all five continents. On average, the group's emergency telecoms kits are in use for 350 days a year. Over 500 NGOs and UN agencies, as well as millions of victims, have already used its services.

A typical deployment will last between one and two months. By the end of this period, NGOs and other aid agencies will usually have set up their own telecoms equipment, or the local infrastructure will have been repaired so terrestrial communications can be re-established. During the critical first 15 days of a large emergency, TSF will route all communications through its BGAN terminals.

"The advantages of BGAN are that you can deploy within minutes, it's light, it's mobile, and it works practically anywhere in the world," says Walton. "However, when we're staying for longer-term responses, we would then move on to VSAT technology. In the long-term, VSAT is much more cost-effective. So we try to deploy our VSATs as soon as we can… if we can, of course. In some countries it can be difficult but, generally, whenever you can use BGAN you can also use VSAT."

Corporate citizenship

The humanitarian nature of TSF's work has attracted support from a number of high-profile telecoms players. Inmarsat, the Vodafone Group Foundation, AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Eutelsat and Vizada are among the NGO's corporate partners. TSF is also part of the United Nations' Emergency Telecommunications Cluster and the telecom partner of the European Commission's aid department, ECHO.

Inmarsat's president and chief operating officer, Michael Butler, says disaster relief is an important and growing market for the company. Only a couple of days after an earthquake hit Sichuan province in China in May, between 600 and 700 of Inmarsat's BGAN terminals were already sending and receiving data from the region.

"One of the really interesting points for us as a satellite operator is that, even though we've got a much more powerful network nowadays, you can still get congestion if you have hundreds of users at one given time," says Butler. "The very positive thing that we learned about the Chinese earthquake was that we were able to double the number of beams over the disaster area, something that we had never done anywhere else in the network. It was a great test for how robust our network was. We had very low levels of congestion, we had voice, IP data, and many hundreds of users could be simultaneously supported."

But it's not just the aid agencies that turn to broadband mobile satellite technology when nothing else works on the ground. "CNN, the BBC and all the major broadcasters want to start streaming live images as soon as possible," says Butler. "That puts some additional stress on the network."

Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May, is currently estimated to have killed more than 130,000 people. Given the Burmese regime's reluctance to authorise the use of communication equipment inside the country, most of the media coverage was done from the border with Thailand. With so many BGAN terminals concentrated in a narrow spot (and each of them running symmetric connections of up to 492Kbit/s), this posed a new challenge for Inmarsat's fleet. "But we were able to respond," says Butler, "as our network can dynamically allocate more capacity if we see demand increasing."

Additional satellite capacity is initially allocated automatically up to a pre-specified level based on the network's frequency plan. Then, if even more capacity is required, Inmarsat has to manually modify its frequency plan, which it can normally do in a few minutes.

Picking up the bill

"A 6.5 earthquake in Turkey will not have the same impact as a 6.5 earthquake in Japan," says TSF's Walton. "In Japan, there would be no point in deploying as we know they have the facilities, the technology and the resources to respond and to fix everything very quickly - or at least to provide support."

Depending on the scale and location of each emergency, TSF will immediately assess the situation and decide whether or not to deploy. "For the Peru earthquake last year, for example, we didn't hesitate," says Walton. "There was no question about the urgency. Our base in Nicaragua immediately deployed and we were there the next day."

Just as with the three-minute calls that TSF offers to affected civilians, qualifying aid agencies also get to use the communications gear for free, according to Walton: "We'll provide services for free to any organisation supporting relief efforts and helping those affected.

"So we will help NGOs, appeal agencies, local charities, governments working to help their people. Sometimes we'll even help the military - I'm thinking of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005, where the Pakistani military had a very strong presence and were very important to aid workers because they had the logistics to reach affected areas."

That doesn't mean that someone won't have to pick up the bill for all the bandwidth used at the end of each mission. TSF still pays for all its communications, although that's clearly where the advantage of having partners such as Vizada (an Inmarsat distributor) and Eutelsat (used for the VSAT links) comes in. These companies offer TSF preferential rates.

According to Inmarsat's Butler, the cost of transmitting a megabyte of data through the operator's network is about one-tenth of what it was five years ago. This, he says, is generating a change in the technology's usage patterns the company used to observe from typical emergency responses.

"We're seeing that the network traffic spikes last a little longer," notes Butler. "Because it's more cost-effective and it's easier to deploy, they carry on using it even after the initial disaster has passed. In the Darfur region, for example, not only were people there initially, but we're seeing many of the aid agencies now deploying these [terminals] on a long-term basis."

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Are cellular networks getting tougher?

"How often do you find that terrestrial communications infrastructure is the first to be rendered useless in natural disasters?" I asked Oisín Walton, head of communications and international relations of Télécoms Sans Frontières.
"It all depends," he said. "We have noticed that mobile networks are more robust and are not always as affected as they used to be. If you take flood situations where base stations are on top of hills, for example, the GSM network would not be really affected.

"But that doesn't mean that it won't be saturated [with calls], because you have too many people calling for help or to make sure relatives are safe, and aid workers using the same lines.

"Landlines will normally be the first to go in a flood - and they take longer to fix, too. In earthquakes, especially if it's a strong earthquake, everything is down.

"During the Peru earthquake on 15 August last year, everything was down, nothing worked for several days. After about a week, the mobile network was back up, but you still didn't have priority phone lines for aid workers, and you didn't have Internet access."

Fortunately for aid agencies working in the field, Télécoms Sans Frontières did.

Alert system

Tsunami warning system

For the more than 225,000 people in 11 countries that lost their lives on 26 December 2004, it has arrived too late. For the regional governments and the international community, the inauguration in June 2006 of the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System signalled the first concrete step in making sure that such a loss of life won't happen again.

Built under the auspices of UNESCO, the alert system consists of a network of seismographic stations and deep-ocean sensors that continuously relay information to 27 different countries. At 50 different fixed sites across the Indian Ocean, each of the monitoring stations has been equipped with a remote BGAN satellite connection.

The stations are programmed to send data packets indicating wave levels and other parameters every minute. Should an impending tsunami be detected, local authorities have coastal community evacuation plans ready to put into action.

Similar tsunami warning systems have previously been deployed and are also operational in the Pacific Ocean for the western coast of North America and Japan. Michael Butler, the president and chief operating officer of Inmarsat says that, over time, he expects his company's BGAN system to become the preferred communications technology for these types of networks. "It enables a lot higher capacity," he says, "and is very cost-effective to use."

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