Every aid agency needs to be able to communicate in the field. The staff on the ground need to be able to communicate with each other, with staff in other locations in the country, and with head office. Often they need to be able to communicate with other aid organisations and the UN as well.
In most countries, when someone wants to speak with a friend or contact, a mobile phone or landline is available to both people and there’s no problem holding a conversation.
However, in countries where poverty is the norm and war or natural disasters (or often both) have prevented the development of a reliable communications network, alternate means often need to be used by aid agencies to communicate. There are many different different communications technologies used by aid agencies, but these are the most common:
Telephones are still widely used, as mobile phone companies have aggressively targeted developing countries in recent years. In fact, Africa is the world’s most important emerging market for mobile phone companies, as mobile networks are relatively cheap and easy to set up. Even most small towns in the Democratic Republic of Congo have mobile phone networks, but once you leave town your phone becomes not much more than an over sized pocket watch.
VHF (Very High Frequency) radios are a common sight among NGO workers. These are basically just very high quality walkie-talkies, which can be used to communicate with people up to 50km away (but not more than 10-15km in most circumstances). There are also mobile VHF stations which are mounted in vehicles with a small antenna on the roof, and VHF base stations which include a big antenna on a mast and which can transmit longer distances than the handsets. A common setup is to have a base station manned by the radio operator who keeps track of vehicle and staff movements, with key personnel having handsets and all vehicles having mobile stations. The most commonly used brand is Motorola; model names starting with GP are handsets and those starting with GM are mobile or base stations.
Another type of radio used by humanitarian organisations is HF (High Frequency). These radios can transmit very long distances – even around the world in the right conditions. HF radios can either be base stations with a wire antenna mounted on masts, or mobile stations mounted on vehicles with a heavy autotuning antenna. The most common brand of HF radio you’ll see in the aid world is CODAN, an Australian company.
This is a CODAN HF radio kit that MSF-Belgium put together and lent to one of the Merlin-supported clinics in the Lubutu Health Zone, so they can make emergency calls to the MSF hospital which can then send an ambulance. The radio itself is the box with the yellow on it. They’ve mounted it, along with a voltage stabiliser and two 12V batteries to power the unit, in a metal case that can easily be closed and transported.
This is the antenna for the HF radio. Most of the wires in the photo are just guy wires to hold the mast upright; the two wires in the top left of the photo form half of the antenna which is held at three points. The centre of the antenna is held by the mast in the photo while the two ends are on shorter masts not visible in this photo. This antenna is connected by a cable to the radio unit in the previous photo.
This is the MSF ambulance at their hospital in Lubutu. The big black antenna on the front corner above the headlights is the CODAN HF autotuning antenna. Inside that black part, the antenna actually has a moving part that self-adjusts to change the effective length of the coiled wire inside, in order to send and receive messages. There’s a radio mounted inside the Toyota LandCruiser, usually mounted behind the front passenger seat, and a microphone mounted on the dashboard for the driver or passenger to use.
Although mobile phones won’t work in the middle of the jungle in DR Congo, satellite phones will work anywhere if you can get a clear enough view of the sky to get a satellite signal. These are Iridium satellite phones charging before being sent to Haïti. Thuraya satellite phones are used more commonly, but in Haïti there is poor network coverage by Thuraya so we sent Iridiums there instead. Satphones used to be small suitcase affairs, but these days they look like 1996 mobile phones. The advantage to satphones is that they work in the middle of nowhere and are easy to carry. The disadvantage is that phone calls are extremely expensive – often about USD 7/minute!
Another type of satellite phone, which can be used for phone calls if needed but is designed for data transmission (basically a very slow internet connection), is the BGAN. These are BGAN units charging. They have to be pointed in the correct direction to “see” the satellite and make a connection, then a computer can be connected and very slow internet connection can be established. They emit dangerous radiation, however, so you have to make sure that the white panels are facing away from humans when the BGAN is powered on. As with Thurayas and Iridiums, BGANs offer the advantage of a data connection just about anywhere in the world, but the same disadvantage that usage is very expensive. Some agencies program them to allow only email clients (e.g. MS Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird) to send and receive emails but no internet browser use.
When an aid agency sets up a base, a regular internet connection is generally required, so a common solution is to set up a satellite dish at the base which is supposed to provide an acceptably fast internet connection for a monthly fee rather than the exorbitant sums charged for BGAN use.
All this comms equipment needs to be powered in order to work, but in the middle of nowhere there’s usually no reliable power company lighting the town or village. Energy will be the topic of the next post.