Phone lines and lifelines: the importance of connectivity in a crisis

Following a humanitarian crisis, contact and coordination between charities, NGOs, and emergency services is critical.

Guest author

October 2, 2020

6 Min Read
Phone lines and lifelines: the importance of connectivity in a crisis periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Emmanuel Jean, Projects Coordinator at Télécoms Sans Frontières, details the unique challenges associated with providing connectivity in emergency situations.

In moments of crisis, many of us instinctively seek human connections. We reach for the phone to call friends and family, and we scour the internet looking for help and advice. The same goes for governments and response teams. Following a humanitarian crisis, contact and coordination between charities, NGOs, and emergency services is critical. Healthcare and service providers meanwhile depend on contact with user data and connectivity to manage provision of aid.

This all relies on robust, secure, and accessible telecoms infrastructure. From networks, satellites and base stations, to call centres, hardware and even the training required for users: technology is a fundamental element of any disaster response. The importance of access to technology from a practical perspective is obvious. However, the emotional and psychological impacts of connection and connectivity, though often underestimated, are equally significant.

And yet – in moments of crisis, establishing and maintaining human connections is one of the biggest challenges NGOs and service providers face. Transporting physical assets like telecoms and IT equipment into a disaster zone is difficult enough. Now imagine having to establish connectivity, set up new toll-free numbers for those affected to call, navigate local licensing laws and telecoms regulations, as well as generating electricity to power operations.

A world first in disaster response

It’s challenges like these that Télécom Sans Frontières (TSF) has been facing head-on for over two decades. Founded as the world’s first NGO focusing on emergency-response technologies, TSF works to deliver and secure that basic, instinctive human need for connection in some of the world’s most challenging and inhospitable environments. Whether it’s a natural disaster like Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, a man-made incident like Beirut port explosions, or a geopolitical migrant crisis, we deploy tools and infrastructure to serve the needs of communities. These range from rapid-response communications centres for local and international responders, to digital displays showing information on migration routes, and remote monitoring and data gathering.

However, this is far from straightforward. The challenges of providing technology and tools in a humanitarian crisis can be broadly divided into two camps. First: logistics. Transporting telecoms equipment across landscapes devastated by floods, earthquakes or bombs is extremely difficult, so hardware must be as compact and lightweight as possible. It must be hardware agnostic, enabling technicians to quickly and easily integrate it with existing technology, no matter which region of the world they are in.

The need for speed

Networks aren’t usually the typical deployments many readers will think of. Instead, they are usually small-scale, temporary and extremely flexible, meaning the infrastructure can support the unpredictable nature of network use during a humanitarian emergency. Satellite has huge advantages in such scenarios, offering worldwide coverage and a faster and more reliable service than local data and telephone infrastructures. It can also provide connectivity to rural areas beyond the reach of terrestrial infrastructure, which it is not reliant on. . Often one of the first actors on the scene, the speed and ease of satellite means we’ve been able to rapidly deploy communications services in remote areas and refugee camps.

In any crisis, the speed of response is crucial. When asked about what this ‘response’ constitutes, what will spring to the minds of most is getting medical supplies and shelter to those affected. What many people don’t realise, however, is that distributing and managing the efforts of those doing these jobs is reliant on effective communication. In addition to a rapid, reactionary response, managing humanitarian disasters also involves meeting long-term objectives and ensuring long-term change. Don’t forget: crises continue long after TV cameras stop rolling and journalists get posted elsewhere.

When the cameras stop rolling…

While telecoms infrastructure must be established rapidly, it must also be established in way that offers lasting change. Cost-effective solutions must be developed, adapted and sustained in order to assist migrants, refugees, displaced people and other disadvantaged communities in different areas, including education, healthcare, women’s rights and food security. Of course, we can rarely do this alone. Instead, partnerships and cooperation are crucial.

A recent example of this is in Beirut. Following the explosions in the port of the Lebanese city, we’ve been working with the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams, local NGO Live Lebanon and Beirut Relief Coalition, a consortium of 22 NGOs and 2,500 volunteers.

In less than a week we established a call centre to allow disaster victims to report their needs, from medical concerns to those regarding mental health and financial aid. We then added support for WhatsApp, allowing individuals to communicate with the contact centre via the instant messaging app. Each request for assistance is handled by a team dedicated to answering and returning the calls, while another support unit of specialised personnel evaluates which assets to deploy where – and how best to deploy them.

Red tape and regulations

The need for speed is clear, and something we were able to meet in the case of the Beirut explosions. However, this isn’t always the case. In addition to logistical challenges, there’s a second major challenge: regulations and legalities. In the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, for instance, the situation is very strict in terms of setting up telecoms infrastructure – even for NGOs. It takes longer for agreements to be put in place, requiring a greater degree of flexibility.

What we can do in situations like this is to offer on-the-ground assessments and support. In Bangladesh, we conducted assessments in a number of camps to evaluate access to mobile and internet communications, electricity and information. We shared the results of these assessments with the Emergency Telecommunications Sector (ETS) and the Community Communication Working Group (CwC), as well as a proposal for technical solutions to improve access to information in the camps.

In terms of regulatory challenges, although problems remain in some regions,  in others these can be overcome thanks to the Tampere Convention. This treaty, adopted by 75 countries in June 2018, is designed to allow rapid telecoms assistance in disaster situations and covers the installation and operation of telecoms services. Usual regulatory barriers – including those covering licensing agreements to use certain frequencies and importing hardware – are waived.

In a humanitarian crisis, the needs of communities can differ vastly, as can the specific challenges of providing aid. However, by collaborating with other groups, using telco expertise, and considering both immediate and long-term needs, we can help deliver on the one thing that unites those affected by a crisis: the need for human connections.


TSF currently has a fundraising page dedicated to providing Syrian refugee children with education in digital and soft skills. Its aim is to create an environment of creation, collaboration and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. The children involved in TSF’s project will gain digital skills that will be essential for their future academic and professional development. For more information on the project, and to make a donation, please head to the link below:

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