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Pakistan war challenges telecom aid group

Stephen Lawson | May 29, 2009
TSF is gearing up to provide free phone calls to people displaced by Taliban-Pakistan fighting

SAN FRANCISCO, 28 MAY 2009 - When the international aid group Telecoms sans Fròntiers arrived in war-torn northwest Pakistan earlier this month, it found something that isn't usually in the distressed areas where TSF typically works: Five mobile networks.

The networks, which cover parts of the border region where Taliban insurgents are fighting with Pakistan's army, are all based on GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and offer data services as fast as EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution), according to Oisin Walton, head of the TSF mission. He and other aid workers are able to use the Web and exchange e-mail through tethered phones, though at typical speeds of 27Kb per second, Walton said.

It's a world of difference from the group's relief efforts after the 2005 earthquake in nearby Kashmir, where cellular networks were thin to start with and had all been destroyed in the quake. But that's not to diminish the size or importance of TSF's current task.

An estimated 2.5 million people have been forced from their homes over the past several months in the region, where government forces have been cracking down on the Taliban. Many of these domestic refugees, or internally displaced persons (IDPs), have found hosts within local communities. But about 20,000 families, or 140,000 people, are staying in camps, Walton said. Most of them can't call relatives to exchange news and ask for assistance because, even if they have cell phones, they have no electricity to charge them with.

TSF's mission since its founding about 10 years ago has been to bring communications to people affected by natural or human-made disasters. The group also gives some aid workers voice and data connections in these areas. Its work is partly funded by the United Nations Foundation and mobile operator Vodafone. Walton described TSF as the only nongovernmental organization (NGO) specializing in emergency telecommunications that serves both kinds of users.

The usually dry subject of networking takes on a different meaning in the world where TSF's engineers work. They move around frequently, setting up and tearing down infrastructure depending on local needs and security conditions, and often need to set up satellite systems to reach the outside world on a few days' notice. The conflict in Pakistan has presented some special challenges.

"The difficulty here is that our staff is a target for the insurgents, so we can't take any risks," Walton said. It's not considered safe for anyone who looks like a Westerner to travel in the regions most affected by the fighting, he said. As a result, Walton has reduced his team of four to just two. They arrived in Pakistan on May 18 and haven't yet been able to provide any assistance. Because of security conditions and the availability of the commercial cellular networks, TSF has formed a rare partnership with a local NGO to help out with the mission.


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