Voice, data, help desk: Meet the Syrian refugees' IT infrastructure chief

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Special report Humanitarian organisations depend on internet and telecoms connectivity to conduct their life-saving work, and providing that critical service when there is none available is the job of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC).

This is a global network of organisations who are on call to rapidly deploy when disaster strikes, whether that emergency is natural – Nepal earthquake; health – Ebola in West Africa; or man-made – the Syrian refugee crisis.

The ETC is operating a “Whole of Syria” approach covering both the war-torn country and the neighbouring countries to which more than four million Syrian people have fled: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

The mandate of the ETC globally is to ensure that connectivity services are available to allow humanitarian organisations – United Nations agencies, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent – to efficiently perform their essential roles.

Samer AbdelJaber, ETC coordinator for the Syrian crisis and regional IT officer of the World Food Program (WFP) Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, told us how the group fits into the current crisis.

“ETC provides voice and data communications, security telecommunications, radio communication training, customer support, information management and coordination between humanitarian organisations,” AbdelJaber told The Reg. “ICT helpdesk services are provided to support users, deploy services and maintain the services. We also provide basic customer support services such as printing and charging stations.”

“When the ETC is activated, local inter-agency working groups are established, bringing in organisations involved in the response to discuss, plan and request required services. Any humanitarian user – from UN agencies to locally-based NGOs – can access shared ETC services at no cost," he added.

ETC Syria is funded by donors, most notably the governments of Canada, USA, UK and Denmark. Some partners, such as Ericsson Response and Luxembourg’s Emergency.lu, provide ‘in-kind’ donations of people, equipment and services.

The role of the ETC differs depending on the emergency, political situation, geography and requirements. It is “provider of last resort”, which means it works with existing service providers – most obviously the mobile network operators (MNOs) – rather than needlessly duplicating resources.

Thus, in a natural disaster, the ETC steps in to replace destroyed (or non-existing) infrastructure: “At the peak of the Nepal earthquake operation, the ETC was providing internet services at 17 sites across three common operating areas. As soon as local internet providers restored services, the ETC could demobilise.”

An ICT infrastructure that simply didn’t exist in most affected areas of West Africa was needed during the Ebola emergency. “In the Ebola operation, ETC services were delivered at an unprecedented 90 sites across three affected countries to support humanitarians and healthcare workers. Now the number of cases are decreasing, the healthcare facilities are closing down and the ETC can start to demobilise its services,” AbdelJaber said.

When it comes to Syria, the aid agencies are operating in three very different environments: parts of Syria where ICT infrastructure is unreliable and may be wrecked, in refugee camps (such as Zaatari in Jordan) where little infrastructure existed prior to the establishment of the camps, and refugees spread across the host countries, where existing ICT services can largely be relied on by the aid agencies.

Of these, supporting the ICT needs of humanitarian workers within Syria is clearly the most challenging.

“In Syria, the cluster is operating in a complex geo-political context,” AbdelJaber said. “The deployment of IT equipment in a war-torn country is a challenge due to the reluctance of governments to allow communication services to be deployed. Additionally, the complex nature of the conflict means that access issues within Syria change regularly and the longevity of the emergency means that services provided need to be durable.”

“In these environments it is difficult to not only deploy equipment, but also personnel to respond to needs to the community. Many private sector and government partners [of the ETC] are unable to deploy to countries where there are safety and security concerns.”

The main cluster locations in Syria and the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are shown on the ETC Syria operation map.

“The ETC provides services in ‘common operating areas’, areas where a number of humanitarian organisations are operating," AbdelJaber said. “In Syria, it provides services at hubs in Damascus, Tartous, Homs, Aleppo and Qamishli. In addition, ETC services are offered at the two major Syrian camps in Jordan – Zaatari and Azraq – where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) takes a leading role in service delivery.”

The ETC is activated and deactivated at the request of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and a coordinator is appointed to lead the cluster activities in the country, or in the case of Syria, the region.

Before deploying physical infrastructure, the ETC conducts assessments to understand the communications needs in specific locations, then identifies the most suitable ways to deliver the services requested by the agencies.

The hardware that’s deployed varies hugely depending on location, requirements and pre-existing infrastructure. It may include radio equipment; backup power sources; telecoms towers, satellite communications systems and phones; PBX telephony systems; networking equipment; laptops; and access points.

Most importantly, systems must be robust and able to handle unpredictable levels of traffic without falling over.

“The ETC voice and data services require effective networking and applications that can route the traffic and act as a load balancer where there is a large number of users. Standard operating procedures are developed and training conducted on the use of the services. They have to be secure and independent to ensure staff safety and security,” AbdelJaber said.

“The number of engineers and technicians required depends on the size of the operation. ETC Syria assembles a flexible team that can expand and contract as needs arise. ETC teams are made up from a number of humanitarian, private sector and governmental organisations including WFP (as global lead agency), Ericsson Response, Emergency.lu and Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB)," said AbdelJaber.

Each partner organisation has its own expertise. Emergency.lu, for example, provides the ETC with quick-deploy VSAT satellite terminals, bandwidth and manpower to deploy and maintain services.

Ericsson Response provides equipment and solutions to manage and distribute bandwidth, as well as manpower (the team is made up of volunteers from Ericsson employees). The Ericsson Response’s WIDER application ensures that humanitarian personnel working in the Arbat and Domiz camps in Iraq receive internet services.

“Such partners are fundamental to the ETC. They work with us not only in emergencies, but in between emergencies. We research, develop and test solutions together to ensure they are appropriate for the humanitarian operating environment. We also train personnel together so that when the next disaster strikes, we are can hit the ground running,” AbdelJaber told The Reg.

Next page: ETC2020

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