Olly Parsons | GSMA | Thu, 28 May 2015 16:05:00 +0000

As the response from the international community to the 7.8 earthquake which struck Nepal last month built momentum, the Emergency Telecommunication Cluster (ETC) was meeting in Dubai as part of Humanitarian ICT week 2015. The ETC formally activated to support the response in Nepal, providing expertise, equipment, technical and coordination support to bolster communication and connectivity in affected areas. More information on the ETC and the response can be found here.

The GSMA Disaster Response team has been working closely with Ncell and Nepal Telecom as well as the Nepal Telecommunications Authority to support restoration efforts in the country and the coordination of support between the mobile industry and the ETC on response activities. For more information on the earthquake response efforts in Nepal please contact kreid@gsma.com and oparsons@gsma.com. 

Under the backdrop of a live deployment, the ETC launched its new Vision 2020 strategy. As a partner of the ETC with observer status, the GSMA Disaster Response programme has engaged in this strategy development. Vision 2020 focuses on four key priorities:

  • Enhanced Communications and Energy
  • Improved and Decentralised Response Readiness
  • Increased Communications Resilience to Disasters
  • Communications as Aid

(Each of these priorities deserve an article in their own right, stay tuned for these over the next couple of weeks.)

A key element of the new strategy is greater collaboration with local mobile network operators, in both capacity building and response coordination. It is recognised that MNOs are themselves experts in communicating with their subscribers, an important aspect of any emergency response. MNOs are also best placed to understand the communication landscapes of the countries in which they operate. Following disaster they will be aware of where communication disruption is most likely and what their networks need in terms of restoration support. They do however need support; Logistics and access to affected areas can massively challenging; The ability to quickly procure and have delivered critical replacement equipment; A regulatory environment in which emergency procedures are in place and clearly defined.

Extreme events become daily challenges
During Humanitarian ICT week, at the Working Group on Emergency Telecommunications (WGET), the Disaster Response programme convened a number of MNOs to whom the challenges presented by natural disasters and complex emergencies are unfortunately a part of the reality of their day to day operations.

Only 2 hours prior to joining the stage, Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan, one of Afghanistan’s mobile network operators, told us he had received a call to alert him that the Taliban had stuck two bombs to one of the networks fibre optic cables, cutting it and necessitating that the operator switch to satellite link to enable continued communications. Public Relations & Communications Senior Manager at Asiacell (Ooredoo Group), Abdulla Hasssan, described the difficulties in running a mobile network in Iraq. Asiacell has currently been forced to switch off a large proportion of its network by the Islamic State. For Ramon Isberto, Head of Public Affairs at Smart Communications in the Philippines, operating a mobile network in a country hit by an average of 22 tropical storms a year poses significant risks, but risks which must be faced and overcome.

These network operators face extreme challenges and yet they are acutely aware of the importance of communications to their customers.

The importance of partnerships
Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, Global Coordinator for Communicating with Communities at UN OCHA highlighted the integral role of partnerships in this area. UN OCHA is looking at where these can be formed ahead of disaster and crisis to increase resilience and preparedness. Alex acknowledged that MNOs are experts in their own right; they know their subscriber populations and they understand how to communicate with them.

Ramon likened partnership development in the past as akin to ‘speed dating’. However he said that organisations were moving beyond that, and that it was important to continue focusing on raising the bar to create longer and more sustainable partnerships. Ramon also noted that many operations are looking to how they can use their technological capability and scale to create solutions and provide assistance in times of disaster. Partnerships are a critical component of these efforts.

Kamal also added to this, commenting that frequently MNOs are regarded as sales people and were only approached as partners in the height of a crisis. He applauded the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter as the opportunity for all MNOs to unite, in a non-competitive nature to leverage their scale and ubiquity to positively impact the lives of those affected by crisis.

Asiacell has worked to provide connections to IDPs following displacement in Iraq. Last year Asiacell, together with operators Zian and Korek, partnered with the UN OCHA and with support from the GSMA and the regulatory authorities in Iraq, formed a short code and call centre to support information needs of displaced populations. Abdulla highlighted the importance of partnerships to Asiacell in this space, noting that the operator wanted to support humanitarian efforts where ever possible.

The GSMA Disaster Response programme will soon be publishing a report on partnership development. This will be available on our resources page and also shared through our quarterly newsletter. Sign up here if you would like to join our mailing list.

The Humanitarian Connectivity Charter continues to grow
This discussion highlights the extreme challenges facing many MNOs, as well as the willingness of the industry to contribute and support humanitarian efforts in times of disaster and crisis to best serve affected populations.

The occasion also marked the signing and adoption of the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter by Roshan. They join Ooredoo Group, Axiata Group, Smart Communications and member companies of Etisalat.

The Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, an initiative launched by the GSMA Disaster Response programme at Mobile World Congress 2015, is a set of principals aimed at the Mobile Industry and focused on maintaining access to connectivity and communications for affected populations in times of crisis. The initial signatories of the Charter collectively represent over one billion subscribers in 35 countries.

For more information on the earthquake response efforts in Nepal or on the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, please contact kreid@gsma.com and oparsons@gsma.com.