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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

The first step will be an expedition to gauge the level of need and the availability of cellular coverage in the area where the camps are located. That trip has been postponed several times because of security concerns but is now set to begin Monday. So far, TSF has relied on information from relief workers and other sources to find out where coverage is good, unreliable or unavailable, Walton said.

TSF next will set up temporary stations in each IDP camp where people can make free three-minute phone calls. Many of the IDPs have relatives in the Middle East, the U.K. and the U.S. The cost is remarkably low on GSM, about 1 Pakistani rupee (US$0.012) per minute for domestic calls and 2 rupees to the U.S., Walton said. Where cellular coverage isn't available, the group will provide Inmarsat Mini-M satellite phones, which are easy to use and offer digital voice calling as well as fax, e-mail and data transfer at 2400 bits per second, he said. Satellite calls cost about $1 per minute.

After serving the displaced people in the camps, the group will go on to set up services for those staying in homes, who are more likely to have access to phones through their hosts, Walton said.

But the need is likely to be most critical in areas where none of the five cellular networks is available, either because of remoteness or war damage, Walton said. These are the areas closest to the front, where people who have fled their native mountains are living at lower elevations with temperatures above 40 degrees Centigrade (100 degrees Fahrenheit), he said.

"If there's no GSM, they've had no chance of giving news, and they're in a camp, in very difficult circumstances," Walton said.

 

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