Thuraya Link issue 8 Nov 2014
Issue 9 | FEB 2015
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The Ebola Crisis in West Africa: Lessons Learned About Providing Disaster Relief Communications
Joseph R. Francis
Regional Director of North America
Joseph R. Francis, Regional Director of North America at Thuraya, examines the key role of communications in facilitating disaster relief, and shares his thoughts on how organizations can better leverage communications technologies to combat pandemic outbreaks and disasters.
Fahad Kahoor
In West Africa, the ravaging effects and widespread panic of the recent Ebola outbreak laid bare the poor institutional infrastructure and inadequate government resources desperately needed to combat and manage this disease. Never before has a pandemic require such a massive, multi-national, multi-organizational response from public and private sector institutions.

Yet the ability of doctors, epidemiologists and other responders to communicate with one another as they tracked the spread of the disease has been hampered by limited landline and cellular networks. All three of the hardest-hit nations—Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone—lack the mobile communications infrastructure needed to ensure effective response and data collection.

In addition, there are significant challenges using the limited cellular connectivity that is available. For example, Liberia does not permit cellular carriers to share towers, so coverage can be spotty. In addition, the country relies heavily on foreign investment and expertise and many network operators have evacuated engineering and maintenance personnel, leaving an already nascent infrastructure crumbling.

While agencies and organizations are rapidly trying to catch up and control the outbreak, there have been some significant lessons learned in just a few short months surrounding the important role communications plays in combatting the pandemic. These lessons offer organizations the opportunity to leverage communications technologies to deal with pandemic outbreaks in the future in both developing and developed nations.

Several different types of technologies need to converge in order to manage a wide-scale response in pandemic situations

For decades, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea have been ravaged with civil wars, and internal conflicts have prevented the countries from developing the terrestrial and cellular infrastructures found in many other coastal African nations with access to undersea cables. According to the consultancy BuddeComm, Sierra Leone was exclusively dependent on satellites for international connections until February 2013 when it finally connected to an undersea cable.

Also according to BuddeComm, the civil war in Liberia has destroyed the terrestrial infrastructure, making the nation almost entirely dependent on wireless connections for communication. This is true in all three of the most affected countries, but the wireless networks generally cover only the most populated areas, with up to 80 percent of the geographic area having no coverage at all, according to Steve Van Roekel, the Chief Innovation Officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. point person on the global Ebola fight. Because of poor coordination between network providers, users often can't make calls crossing national borders. At the same time, terrestrial fiber and cable that would support Internet connections are woefully lacking, and bandwidth speed is low because of limited connectivity to the global network.
Penetration of the market
Sierra Leone
Source: BuddeComm
While terrestrial phones and limited IP technologies continue to provide critical needs, satellite communications, both telephonic and IP, are absolutely critical in these countries with limited infrastructures and large swaths of territories that are in remote areas.

In the fight against Ebola, satellite connectivity has been able to support the increased use of telemedicine in remote areas with limited medical resources. It has also enabled doctors to treat patients without being exposed to Ebola. Such remote diagnosis would not be possible with limited terrestrial connectivity. Only satellite communications offers a path forward for remote treatment.

A viable logistics processes must be implemented to distribute critical communication equipment in affected countries

Resource distribution involves many different public and private organizations and agencies. Yet, arcane government regulations and real concerns about how satellite communications devices might be used have presented major roadblocks to getting needed equipment into the hands of medical personnel responding to the Ebola epidemic.

For example, customs officials in one country prevented communication equipment donated by Thuraya from being imported. To work around the ban, Thuraya shipped satellite phones, SIM cards, and IP terminals directly to a foreign embassy official who had worked previously with the company, who then passed the equipment on to the NGO recipient. While this tactic worked once, it is clear that government, NGO, and private-sector stakeholders must come together to develop a viable long-term logistics solution to get critical equipment to those in need.

Battling pandemics is a collaborative process

The response needs and resources in these nations are significant and immediate. Business issues such as profit, information security, and/or competitive posturing can cause delays in getting critical communications in the hands of those that desperately need it. For pandemic response, information sharing should be heightened instead of allowing concerns over information security be an inhibitor.

Satellite providers should offer West African and other developing nations flexible pricing plans that allow them to be charged only in times when satellite communications are being used. In addition, there is often a surge in satellite communication needs in disasters or pandemic responses, so providers must be able to conduct dynamic resource allocation to ensure that bandwidth can be scaled to accommodate unlimited data needs.

Perhaps most importantly, offering these services at cost is the right and humanitarian thing to do.

A way forward in fighting pandemics

While many lessons were learned about ways to empower local providers to combat Ebola, much work needs to be done to create policies and procedures that ensure a coordinated response.

At a recent forum, Steve Van Roekel was quoted as saying that he "believes that technology plays a foundational and fundamental role [in the fight against Ebola], but it has to be delivered in the context of these challenges."

The challenges facing these nations in combatting Ebola are certainly significant, but they aren't necessarily unique. According to the Mobile Development Impact, there are 22 countries in the world with less than 50 percent of their populations having access to cellular connectivity, with half of those countries being in Africa. This represents a clear data point in the consideration of humanitarian response tactics to the developing world when fighting global pandemics.

Satellite communications offers a crucial lynchpin in a vast response that includes medical equipment and other resources. However, the responsibility lies in working together, today, to ensure that a smoother response occurs for pandemics in the future.
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