How Telecoms Saves Lives: The TSF Story

Photo: Support Humanitarian Coordination Abaco

Even though we spend our lives immersed in telecoms, we can still underestimate its importance in people’s lives – like oxygen or drinking water, it will be noticed as soon as it has gone. 

This is why re-establishing communications networks is a vital part of disaster response – and Télécoms Sans Frontières exists to do just that. Like its medical namesake, the organisation exists to be straight on the scene of a global crisis, having helped in over 140 disaster situations since its foundation in 1998 by giving affected people the possibility to contact their loved ones and begin to regain control of their lives. In fact, this is what has just happened in The Bahamas – a TSF team was on the ground and quickly made a difference. 

All this means we are delighted to welcome TSF as Charity Partner of the SDN NFV World Congress 2019. Ahead of the Congress, we talked to the organisation about how they are saving and changing lives in the current emergency in the Bahamas and in many other areas as well. 

Layer123: Your teams were recently at the scene of Hurricane Dorian in the Caribbean. What form did your assistance take there? 

TSF: We were indeed deployed in the Bahamas. We supported The Bahamas’ government’s response under the leadership of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), in coordination with Pacific Disaster Centre (PDC). TSF focused on connecting the most critical humanitarian coordination centres to enable the reliefs’ coordination until the local operators recovered their services. 

Vsat Marsh Harbour

In parallel, TSF teams provided communication means for the affected populations by providing free calls or connectivity in isolated areas in order to help them on their way to recovery. 

Who did you work with on the ground to achieve this? 

We worked closely with local response mechanism, including NEMA, CDEMA, and in collaboration with UN agencies (WFP, OCHA, ETC). We provided communication means to some of these actors and participated  in the coordination meetings which gathered all relief actors for this crisis. 

What were the main challenges in your Hurricane Dorian operation? 

TSF adapts its response as much as possible to the different challenges and unexpected events of its deployments and the context of a particular mission. 

The Bahamas are composed of many islands, thus the main challenge we are facing in this deployment is the accessibility to the affected zones and populations. As the impact was very strong, we paid special attention to set up our operations in safe places to protect both the beneficiaries and our staff. 

Support Humanitarian Coordination Abaco

The lack of electric power was also a challenge. 

Let’s move on to another type of crisis that TSF is involved in – the situation in Brazil with migrants from Venezuela. From your initial deployment of ToIP in response to the crisis, you have been involved for over a year now. How has your work and presence in this situation changed over time? 

David, one of our first calling operator who has been working with us since the beginning of the mission back in April 2018, said: “We have improved many things because we went understanding how the service should be. We understood that each shelter and each population has its own characteristics.” So our team have been constantly adapting their service to the specific needs of the migrants. 

Technically, we also have been constantly improving the solution. We deployed it for the first time in this mission. It was the fruit of an “in-house experimentation and innovation.” It has proven to be very effective and low cost, and very adaptable to this particular situation. 

How telecoms saves lives

How telecoms saves lives

What is your exit strategy for Venezuela? 

We firmly believe that empowering local communities and organisations is paramount for a sustainable and effective response to a particular crisis and for the best long-term impact amongst beneficiaries. With this objective in mind, our operational involvement in Brazil will be transferred to our local partner AVSI, while TSF will still continue to supervise the project, ensuring the technical support of its ToIP solution and providing remote assistance to the field teams. 

Generally speaking, what is the priority functionality to re-establish following a disaster? 

After any kind of disaster, telecommunications are paramount to better assess the needs, to facilitate the arrival of humanitarians, to coordinate their emergency response etc… 

Then, for the affected population, access to means of communications is essential to help them on their way to recovery. The only fact to be able to hear the voice of loved ones is a great psychological relief, both for the victim and its relatives. 

How far into the redevelopment process do you work? Do you ever take an opportunity to improve connectivity beyond what it was pre-disaster? 

TSF’s core activity is to intervene during the emergency phase of a disaster. 

As the role of technologies in emergencies has expanded throughout the years, TSF’s response has also grown and evolved. 

From disaster response to more protracted issues in the domains of education, capacity building, protection & assistance, whilst working to bridge the digital divide in remote communities, TSF develops, adapts, and makes available innovative and cost-effective solutions to assist migrants, refugees, displaced people and other disadvantaged communities. 

Forecasting emergent crisis, we can deploy our team to improve the connectivity of affected populations with our in-house telecommunication solutions. Like we did in April 2018 with the Venezuelan Migrant Crisis. 

We regularly provide trainings workshops for NGOs and governments on the use of technologies for humanitarian response. 

When an event takes place that you believe you can help with, how do you get involved? What is the process? 

TSF is headquartered in Pau (France) and has two regional offices in Bangkok (Thailand) and Guadalajara (Mexico). This secures a global presence of our organisation, permanent global monitoring, a capability of response 24/7 and deployment in less than 24h on the ground. 

The decision to deploy is taken independently and internally. Depending on the humanitarian context, the process can vary but the objective is always to serve the population and the humanitarian coordination to reduce the impact of the disaster. 

TSF is a member of global humanitarian networks: UNETC, UNOCHA and ASEAN and often collaborate with them on the ground. 

In terms of your place within the telecoms industry, how do you interact with carriers and operators on a day to day basis? What’s the principle of your coordination with them when working in disaster areas? 

TSF’s main partners are composed of some of the leading companies of Telecommunication Industry but our goal is to increase awareness across telco/tech companies on the importance of supporting the first NGO specialised in emergency ICT. 

On the ground, TSF’s main mission is to temporary provide satellite connections while local operators work on the re-establishment of their connection. We do not intervene on top of the carriers and operators to restore their services. Our collaboration with them is therefore purely informational. They inform us on the status of their network so that we know when to deploy our teams and equipment. 

How can organisations in the telecoms industry get involved with what you are doing? 

We are incredibly lucky to have a portfolio of loyal, understanding and committed partners. They are all global leaders in their domain, principally from the satellite and mobile communications sector. They provide us with the necessary means to be as nimble, flexible and rapid as we can, in order for us to deploy whenever and wherever in under 24 hours and help spare lives in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. 

Our goal is to engage the telecommunications industry with TSF through financial partnerships that allow us to maintain our independence and increase awareness across the industry on the importance of supporting the first NGO specialised in emergency ICT. 

Additionally, fundraising events are also another form of getting involved: some of our current financial partners organise charity events based on sport challenge (5k race…) or propose to their employees to make micro-donations. 

Why are you taking part in the SDN NFV World Congress this year, and what form will your presence in The Hague take? 

We want to take advantage of this event to spread the word about TSF and its role in humanitarian telecommunications. 

The SDN NFV World Congress is a gathering of leaders of the telecom industry. This event will allow some of them to discover TSF, and hopefully, to be sensitive to its action, and hopefully to commit in supporting TSF. 

Make sure you are in The Hague in October to meet TSF and a huge number of other companies across the ecosystem - get your pass here.