TSF’s Sébastien Latouille on the steps needed to deliver connectivity in a crisis

Responding to a humanitarian crisis – be it natural or manmade – requires intricate planning, collaborative team effort, and coordination with the other responders. However, a response also demands quick thinking and action, and huge degrees of flexibility. These are two approaches which do not usually go hand in hand!

First responders and NGOs are expert at balancing these dual demands, ensuring they can deploy coordinated efforts and have team members on the ground (and often working alongside the local populace), to best serve the needs of those affected. However, what happens when teams attend to an incident and there’s no connectivity? No phone signal to communicate with other teams and individuals, no internet connection to log crucial data and share information with head offices? For the victims themselves, the inability to speak with friends and family adds further trauma and complicates the process of reuniting disparate groups.

This comes under the remit of Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), an NGO focused on providing emergency relief and communications technologies during humanitarian crises. These incidents are often unpredictable, and the requirements and health and security risks will differ from deployment to deployment. However, there are still a number of approaches – and core technologies – which are utilised time and again to ensure communication and connectivity is restored as quickly as possible, and that sustainable solutions are put in place that support long-term recovery.

Sébastien Latouille

The three-hour window

It’s important to mobilise a response team as soon as possible after an alert of a crisis comes in. Without basic connectivity, local response teams may struggle to effectively support victims and mitigate the initial impact of a disaster. In addition to monitoring global news and updates from local contacts, the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System is one of the critical tools that allow for timely responses. The website, created as part of a cooperation framework between the United Nations, the European Commission and disaster managers worldwide, provides a global review of all the major crises around the world, grading them into green, orange and red depending on their severity.

It's important to have team members on the ground within the first 24 hours. Careful preparation and keeping team numbers low ensures they can move and react with speed. Complexity results in hold-ups, so TSF chooses solutions that are straightforward to set up, and easy to manage. These include solutions like an emergency call centre, which takes into consideration field constraints and the diversity of satellite communication links. For additional flexibility, the kit is made up of analog phones, a power-efficient VoIP gateway and high-density Wi-Fi access points. Finally, a customisable IP router allows for bandwidth management, and encryption and compression can be configured to ensure privacy and link optimisation.

Satellite communications for an effective response

Satellite communications offer a number of advantages, particularly for humanitarian actors working in isolated regions or zones affected by a disaster. With worldwide coverage, these technologies can be used anywhere, they rely on ground infrastructures located in several countries, thus limiting the risk of an unlikely situation where both the country of the mission and the country of the teleport are impacted by consequences of the disaster. They are also usually a lot faster and more reliable than local data and phone infrastructures. Different options are available and provide the possibility to adapt to different contexts and needs.

Mobile Satellite Services, for example, play an important role in delivering connectivity in the first hours after a disaster. Portable satellite terminals can provide internet access, telephony or both, and thanks to the compact size of the handsets, they’re easily transported and can be installed in a few minutes in any affected location.

Fixed satellite services (FSS or VSAT) are well suited for longer-term uses. Some VSAT kits are small enough to be carried on the plane with the team and they are often used after one week of operations. VSATs can also be installed for example in the case of refugee camps or medical operations. In refugee camps, for instance, they may be deployed to provide free Wi-Fi to those living at the site and to the NGOs working in the area. In the initial stages of a deployment, mobile services will most likely be used, with VSAT adopted further down the line if the connection is required for a longer period of time.

“From facilitating the coordination of international relief efforts, to giving affected people free satellite phone calls to reassure loved ones: connectivity in a crisis is critical”

Overcoming the challenges

Fortunately, equipment failures (possibly the biggest potential challenge) are not common. Even so, the team will travel to the field with multiple versions of the same types of tech, so can quickly deploy an alternative if the original fails. In addition to general logistics, the past two years or so have seen another challenge present itself: COVID-19. Ensuring the affected populations are not put at further risk and that all protection measures are respected adds additional work to the preparation and implementation of the humanitarian response operations. In addition, navigating local restrictions and having to take multiple covid tests does add extra time to a mission. Coordinating with governments and local authorities is an essential initial step in any response strategy, ensuring the correct authorisation is obtained to allow for entry and operation in whichever region deployment is needed. In conflict situations, an additional challenge in this regard relates to being able to have guaranteed access to the communities in need.

The final significant challenge is a technical one. Although the equipment itself is straightforward to deploy, there are certain elements to take into consideration in order to provide an effective response. Connectivity must often be delivered across large areas and support diverse needs of numerous end users. One of the solutions here is to optimise the bandwidth to ensure that critical services will always go through. That means for example, blocking unnecessary traffic and also prioritising real-time traffic (such as VoIP) and important communications, so that critical services can be provided and the immediate needs of the local populations and other teams on the ground are met.

From facilitating the coordination of international relief efforts, to giving affected people free satellite phone calls to reassure loved ones: connectivity in a crisis is critical. And the planning, the team work and the technology behind it should not be underestimated.