Exploring how SATCOM plays into humanitarian efforts around the globe at the Humanitarian ICT Forum

Last month, The Humanitarian ICT Forum brought together several humanitarian organizations and leaders in the technology industry to discuss how today’s technological advances can be applied to make more efficient and effective response practices for devastated communities around the world.

Two of the organizations with representatives in attendance at this year’s ICT Forum were satellite providers SES and O3b. Following the event, we sat down with Hung Tran, a Government Senior Sales Engineer at O3b, to discuss the purpose of the forum, and the role that satellite can play in executing and improving humanitarian efforts.

Our discussion covered the current goals and mission for the Humanitarian ICT Forum, how communication and connectivity priorities have shifted over the years for NGOs and UN organizations, and how satellite connectivity delivers hope for communities affected around the globe. Specifically, we discussed the crucial role that satellites have in swiftly re-establishing reliable communication access for affected communities as well as increasing situational awareness for staff in the field.

Here’s what Hung had to say:

Hung TranGovernment Satellite Report (GSR): What is the Humanitarian ICT Forum, and what was its purpose or mission?

Hung Tran (HT): The Humanitarian ICT Forum, formally known as the WGET (Working Group Emergency Telecommunications), meets annually to bring together the humanitarian organizations like the UN, WFP, UN OCHA, UNICEF, UNHT, UNHCR and all those UN organizations – along with private industry – to find innovative solutions that can help humanitarian responses be more efficient and more responsive to the needs of the affected people.

Think of the earthquake or recent hurricane in Haiti or the typhoon in the Philippines. The Humanitarian ICT Forum is known for finding ways to utilize technology to better equip and enable the organizations that respond to these types of events. Another high-level example would be relief for the refugee situations in Africa and Syria. These are the types of efforts they set out to address.

GSR: Executives from both SES and O3b were in attendance and speaking at the Forum. Why is satellite such an important part of humanitarian aid and emergency response?

HT: When something like a natural disaster or a geopolitical event happens, the response groups like WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF have their responses down to a pattern. So, you might ask yourself, “If these groups have procedures set in place, why do they have to meet anyway?” But the reason is to see what can be improved on, what other technologies are out there that they can incorporate into the pattern. Learning to incorporate technology that really helps the needy like that is why it’s so important to meet annually.

And satellite is such an important part of that. When these events take place – whether it’s a typhoon in the Philippines or an earthquake in Haiti – they either damage or completely destroy the existing terrestrial networks and infrastructure, and it can take a long time to rebuild. Satellites can deliver those essential communications services – voice, video and data – in the absence of terrestrial communications networks. So, when the humanitarian staff comes in, they have communication access instantly for coordinating their efforts.

Recently, there has been an increased focus towards helping the affected community, connecting the unconnected. And that’s another area where O3b can play a significant role – we have the capability to come in and provide telecom infrastructure to a large, affected population without having to rebuild their destroyed terrestrial network.

GSR: What types of services and applications can satellite deliver to humanitarian aid workers and those responding to disasters or other emergency situations? What about the people who are affected?

HT: As we discussed, satellites can provide instant connectivity, so when the staff comes in, they can immediately communicate. But communications isn’t the only thing they need when they first arrive on the scene. They need to survey the situation, analyze it, and then coordinate the effort.

Satellite communications enable the staff to coordinate the effort and gain situational awareness by delivering geospatial imagery and other intelligence directly into the field. This is something that simply can’t be done without satellite communications because of the damage to terrestrial networks, and the sheer size of the data files. Additionally, the staff can make phone calls, have video communications and access cloud applications from the field – which is the same functionality that they have in their office – thanks to high throughput and low latency satellite communications

Click the photo above to watch a video about how O3b is empowering telehealth and telemedicine implementations in geographies with little to no terrestrial network connectivity.
Click the photo above to watch a video about how O3b is empowering telehealth and telemedicine implementations in geographies with little to no terrestrial network connectivity.

With regards to the affected community, whether it’s a natural disaster or a war event, satellites allow them to use social media to communicate with their loved ones and help identify which areas are most in need of help. Look at refugees coming from Syria, for example. The first couple of questions they ask are where the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot is and how they can access their social network so they can notify their families of their whereabouts, if they are safe, and if they need help.

In the future, I also see significant potential for the use of UAVs in situational awareness efforts, especially with their ability to provide live video and imagery while keeping rescue workers out of harm’s way. Satellite communications and COMSATCOM networks are essential for both piloting UAVS and distributing the information gathered by UAVs to decision makers and rescue workers in the field.

I also anticipate COMSATCOM-enabled telemedicine becoming more commonplace and essential in disaster recovery and response operations in the future. Telemedicine can be used to help sick and needy patients in extremely remote areas that don’t have access to organizations like Doctors Without Borders. Doctors can help nurses or other people with medical knowledge treat these patients remotely via video, which is delivered via satellite.

GSR: Have O3b’s MEO satellite constellation and satellite services been employed in the past for humanitarian missions or emergency response activities? Why was it an effective tool in those instances?

HT: We have rolled out O3b services in Africa to support humanitarian missions across the continent, so all the staff and affected communities can now have online access and communications capabilities on par with that they have in their office.

Look at the situations that we’ve all seen on TV like in Darfur or South Sudan or Somalia. These examples are situations in which O3b is proudly working with partners on the ground to provide connectivity to their teams. As I mentioned before, this connectivity and access helps team members coordinate and communicate more effectively with access to the cloud, live feeds from teams in the field and real-time, geospatial imagery.

GSR: What is the desired outcome from this Humanitarian ICT Forum? What are those sponsoring and organizing this event looking to have result from it? What are the next steps?

HT: It’s all about strengthening the partnerships and relationships between these organizations, learning how we can all work together and planning accordingly. Overall, we have to look at how all these organizations prepare to move forward and make this whole process move faster, smoother and more efficiently.

SES and O3b are making a real difference and helping in this sector, especially because the focus is shifting away from just helping the staff of the NGOs to helping the affected communities, connecting the unconnected. We have technologies and services that can truly make a difference to these communities.

For additional information about how SATCOM can make a difference and connect the unconnected in emergency response situations, click on the following resources:

White Paper: Operational Trial Of A Satellite Communication System For New Jersey’s First Responders

White Paper: Saving Lives And Livelihoods By Satellite

White Paper: O3b “Fiber Like” Satellite Communications for U.S. Government Applications


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