Sometimes, communications is an underrated hero.
We’ve become accustomed to the mobile and telephone networks that are the fabric of our work, education and play.
In humanitarian disaster situations, those networks are a lifeline.
Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), the leading NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) specializing in emergency telecommunications and new technologies, uses its communications and tech know-how to help support victims during their hardship.
This year, the charity celebrates its 20th anniversary. In that time, TSF has worked in all major disaster situations across 72 countries and assisted more than 850 relief organizations. It has undoubtedly helped tens of thousands of families in very real need. This year also marks the 15th year that we supported TSF, as part of our commitment to keeping people connected when disaster strikes. We are proud to have contributed more than $1.5m to TSF over the past 15 years.
TSF is always one of the first responders in a crisis. It provides vital emergency communications for the authorities, but also for individuals, allowing them to call loved ones to let them know they are safe.
TSF’s very first call was from an Albanian refugee, caught up in the Kosovo crisis in 1998. TSF co-founder and director Monique Lanne-Petit recalled to me recently how he was in tears and smiling at the same time. As Monique recounted to me, it clearly made a tremendous impact in his life.
TSF’s primary role is to provide the connections the emergency teams need to coordinate their response and get resources to where they need them. It is always one of the first on the scene, normally within 24 hours of a crisis. Within a matter of minutes, TSF sets up a satellite-based telecoms center offering broadband internet and phone lines.
Its secondary purpose, but just as important, is to provide a connection to the outside world for those caught up in a crisis. It could be a natural disaster – flood, fire, earthquake or volcano – or a man-made crisis, such as a war-zone or economic crisis. Whatever the cause, TSF is on hand to provide the links needed to let people know their situation. The connection is a lifeline to the outside world.
In the days following a disaster, the TSF team will visit refugee camps, shelters, or will travel from town to town offering a 3-minute call to every family who needs it, to anywhere in the world.
Help where it’s needed: from the Venezuelan crisis to Hurricane Maria
Last month, TSF was also among the first NGOs on site in Brazil in response to the ongoing migration crisis. Nearly 52,000 Venezuelans have fled to the country after Venezuela’s economic and social collapse. At the end of April, TSF had already helped to restore ties between more than 5,000 families, offering some relief during these difficult times.
“I have led a number of emergency deployments for TSF but the Venezuelan crisis stays with me. It has forced 1000s of people to cross the border into Brazil to seek respite and find a way to support their family,” said Florent Bervas, ICT Engineer, TSF. “The calls that we are able to provide mean families members who have not spoken for weeks and months can reconnect.”
David, a young Venezuelan refugee, sums up how much TSF’s work means to him and his family. “I was finally able to talk on the phone with my family for the first time since I left. Like many Venezuelans, I cannot afford to buy a mobile phone and calls to Venezuela are too expensive. My only solution was to go to a cyber café to use social media. But this costs money, and my shelter is too far away. These calls are a big help to us all.”
When Hurricane Maria struck, TSF was on-site within 24 hours. It helped support the Dominica authorities and local community by providing satellite lines and internet connections. 3 months after the hurricane, large parts of the island were still without permanent communications. The Government of Dominica officially requested TSF to continue their support in the most remote areas of the island.
“I live in Penville, a village on the northern part of the island, and I have to travel nearly 15 km to go to school every day in Portsmouth,” said Leila, a resident of Penville, Dominica. “Thanks to the connection installed by TSF, I have access to the internet so I can do my schoolwork and homework and better understand what I am learning at school.”
AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team
We have great affinity and respect for TSF. We, too, do our part to bring back normalcy after disaster has struck by restoring networks. We have a team of employee volunteers who will drop their tools on their day jobs at a moment’s notice in order to assist in a disaster area. These employees form the backbone of the AT&T Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team.
Some employees wake up every morning knowing they could get a call at any moment that would require them to jump on a plane and fly half way across the world. It’s not a scenario most people would think telecoms network engineers face.
But when disaster strikes and brings down global networks, our team of volunteers is ready to go the distance to get it back up and running.
Last year, we assisted in restoring communications to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria blew in. We successfully deployed AT&T’s Flying COW (Cells on Wings) drone to restore telecoms to parts of the island. It was the first operational deployment of the Flying COW and the first time we successfully deployed an LTE cell site on a drone to connect residents after a disaster.
We’re proud that, together with our support for TSF and our own NDR teams, we can make a real difference to people whose lives may depend on us being there in their time of need.