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Photos: Tech reconnects earthquake victims

Staff and volunteers from Télécoms Sans Frontières are using satellite technology to establish communication links in disaster zones
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By Andrew Donoghue on
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1 of 5 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNet

Carmen Hernandez's son in Spain: "Mom, where are you calling from? Your voice is trembling, are you sure everything is alright?"

Carmen Hernandez calling from the port of Pisco in Peru: "Don't worry, please keep talking, it's so good to hear your voice. We're lacking everything here but we're alive. When you come back, you won't recognise Pisco. I'm calling from a satellite phone, a free call offered by an international NGO. Don't worry son, stay where you are."

This extract from a satellite call made last week using equipment provided by communications charity Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) illustrates what motivates the charity's 13-strong team of mainly French IT and telecoms engineers to rush halfway around the world at a few hours' notice to confront the results of disasters, both natural and man-made.

The organisation, which was set up in 1998 by former France Telecom employee Jean-Francois Cazenove, may not be involved in direct rescue work or providing healthcare like its sister organisation, Médicins Sans Frontières, but the services it provides enables other agencies to do their jobs more efficiently. Where natural disasters are concerned, more time means more lives saved.

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2 of 5 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNet

"We didn't ask ourselves any questions when we saw the scale of the earthquake. It was 7.9 and we knew there would be problems which were confirmed when we were on the plane," says TSF's Oisin Walton, discussing the lead-up to the organisation's decision to fly to Pisco following the earthquake there on Wednesday 15 August.

Within hours, five of TSF's France-based staff were on their way to Peru's capital Lima, where they would then travel overland to Pisco to be joined by volunteers from one of the organisation's regional bases in Nicaragua.

The team's first task was to set up a communications centre that would allow rescue workers to co-ordinate their efforts, to care for the victims who could be found and search for those buried under the rubble of Pisco. The next stage of any emergency response is to widen the scope of the communications centre to allow civilians — such as Ms Hernandez — to contact relatives.

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"At the moment we deploy for about one month — the time it takes to re-establish the infrastructure, or until other communications are put in place. This is typically using mobile communications terminals such as Inmarsat BGAN or R-BGAN terminals. These are very efficient in emergencies — you can deploy them anywhere and they are mobile but the downside is that they are expensive and we can't afford to use them for long-term projects," says Walton.

For longer-term emergencies or for pre-planned development projects, TSF still sets up communication centres but uses fixed, very small aperture terminal (VSAT) systems rather than mobile terminals, and opens them up to the wider community. TSF also undertakes an education programme to provide locals with training on how to use the internet and word-processing tasks, such as writing applications and pulling together a CV.

"In Niger, we deployed a prevention system to strengthen the national food crisis prevention system, [and] we connected 12 remote areas where [there were] no communications at all to the capital so that they can receive information in real time — instead of the weeks it used to take. This is the kind of system that could be adapted to other countries, or other crises such as avian flu or AIDS," says Walton.

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4 of 5 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNet

TSF is working alongside the humanitarian aid department of the European Commission, Echo, which provides funding to augment the Telecom's specialist backing from companies such as Cable & Wireless, AT&T, Inmarsat and Vodafone. "They [corporate backers] enable us to already have the funds to deploy in an emergency. Once we are in the field we can ask for more funds to stay in the field, which was the case for Peru. We deployed, and then [subsequently] sent a proposal to the European Commission which was accepted within 72 hours. If we had to wait for the go-forward from the European Commission we would have wasted a lot of time," says Walton.

Even though the organisation relies heavily on the satellite communications services offered by one of its sponsors, Inmarsat, TSF still pays for the cost of the calls. "They did offer us minutes, but we said 'How do we pay for the equipment to use the minutes and hire staff and transport?' We said instead, 'Why don't you give us a yearly grant that we will use for telecoms costs but also all the other costs of an emergency deployment?'," explains Walton.

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5 of 5 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNet

Since its inception, TSF has deployed equipment in 50 countries, including Iraq and post-tsunami Thailand, where it has a permanent operations centre. Given the demand for its services, the organisation has plans to expand its staff and volunteer base as long as it doesn't affect its responsiveness, explains Walton. "We are not looking to be a huge NGO [non-governmental organisation] because in terms of reactivity if you grow then it takes time for decisions to be taken, but we could be doing much more, and to have more staff in emergencies but also in other missions such as prevention," he says.

The last-minute reactivity required to respond to an emergency means that, at the moment, TSF's staff are based close to its headquarters in Pau in southern France. However, plans to increase the number of longer-term development projects could see the organisation recruit volunteers and staff more widely, including from the UK.

"We mainly focus on IT and telecoms engineers — preferably living close to our headquarters. When you need to be on a plane in a few hours it's hard to integrate people outside our region," says Walton.

All new TSF recruits are required to do a week's training and undertake an actual mission — you can only see the quality of people once they are in the situation, says Watson. The training course involves two to three days of technical training and one or two days of living in difficult conditions, with security procedures and the various cultural aspects that are entailed.

If you want more information on TSF, or to make a donation, more information is available on their website.

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