Pakistan War Strains Telecom Aid Group

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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.

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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