Mobiles: A lifesaving tool
The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the industry’s biggest annual event, crammed with the latest technology and futuristic thinking. This year, however, one of the biggest stars of the show was a brand new model – costing just $20. The humble Nokia 105, with its dust-proof keypad and one-month battery life, indicates the customer on whom the industry is now increasingly focused: the poorest of the poor.
As one participant put it at a seminar on consumer behaviour, the industry increasingly understands that for such people, a phone is not a toy or a luxury. It is a tool. And in a disaster, it is a lifesaving tool.
This means that, by definition, a telecommunications company (telco) in an emergency is now a provider of a key humanitarian service.
This is not something that needs to be explained to the telco veterans of Haiti, Italy, Australia or New Zealand – all of whom have experienced major emergencies in recent years. And for telcos in disaster-prone countries, the question of how they prepare for and respond to the emergencies that will sooner or later come is becoming an urgent one, as their networks expand and customer base grows.
This increasing interest – and need – was opened up for discussion in Barcelona, at a packed special session entitled Mobiles: A Lifeline in Disasters. Brought together by the GSMA Disaster Response team, representatives from companies based in countries from the Philippines to Turkey talked about their experiences handling emergencies from earthquakes to typhoons, while humanitarians expressed interest in everything from instant pop-up ways of restoring networks, to real-time displacement mapping using telco data.
Many questions were raised: how can networks best survive emergencies? From a telco perspective, what’s the difference between preparing for a flood and preparing for an earthquake? What about conflict situations? Should telcos be – as they increasingly are through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities – involved in classic humanitarian activities such as food distributions? And if so, how can they work alongside aid agencies and governments in doing so?
The human network
One model for partnership was showcased in Barcelona: the Vodafone Instant Network, a suitcase sized piece of technology that is capable of getting a phone network up and running over a 305 kilometre radius in less than an hour. The Vodafone Foundation Vodafone Instant Network (pictured below setting up), which won the GSMA Best Use of Mobile in an Emergency award in Barcelona against strong competition, was deployed for the first time in an emergency in December 2012, when Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines. As project manager Oisin Walton explained, the deployment’s success was as much a matter of adroit partnership building between a local telco provider, the Vodafone team, humanitarian actors on the ground and local government responders as it was a question of technology.
As the GSMA Disaster Response team emphasise, the mobile network corelates to the human network.
The same is true of an emergency response: success is the capacity of people to work together as much as the technical cleverness of the gadgets they bring. The more that can be done to help these two very different sectors to work together, the better the chances of the future owners of that Nokia handset have of getting the service they need when a disaster hits.
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Image: Vodafone Instant Network