By John McCormick  |  Posted 2005-04-06 Print this article Print

How a U.N relief agency had technology on the ground within 48 hours to help rush food to the victims of Asia's tsunami.

Back on the Air

Once on the ground, the first priority of the ICT team is to set up communications. Because the infrastructure in the hardest-hit tsunami areas was wiped out, the U.N. agency had to rely initially on radio sets.

But the WFP uses radio signals for more than just voice communication. PCs are connected through wireless local area networks based on the popular 802.11b standard, also know as WiFi, to a local server hooked up to a radio modem. From there, e-mails and attachments are sent over high-frequency radio signals at between 2 MHz and 30 MHz.

A few years ago, the WFP turned to UUPlus, a small, privately held company in Los Osos, Calif., that had figured out that by eliminating many typical e-mail protocols, it could overcome the challenge of transmitting messages and files over radio's low bandwidth—just 2,400 characters per second. Where most e-mails go through a series of steps to establish, acknowledge and verify senders and receivers, UUPlus basically just sends a quick ping to verify the host and connection and then dumps the message into the target e-mail box.

UUPlus also automatically compresses both the e-mail and any attachments before a message is sent.

"Considering your bandwidth is limited, you need to optimize it as best you can," says Gianluca Bruni, an ICT project manager who spent time working in Banda Aceh and Jakarta.

Still, while radio communications serve the immediate need, the relief organization knows people in the field are more productive when they have the same applications and computer performance that they've become accustomed to in their offices. With many of the tsunami area's telephone lines out, the only way to establish speedy data communications was with satellites.

Here, the U.N. agency got a break. Last year, it started working with AT&T to roll out a satellite system across the Indian Ocean region that was scheduled to be deployed during the first half of this year, according to Simon Grimsley, the business manager for AT&T's satellite services unit.

Not surprisingly, on Dec. 26, one of the first calls ICT staffers made was to AT&T to see if the deployment could be speeded up. AT&T got right behind the effort, says Grimsley, "to deploy the satellite locations as quickly as possible."

The first five dishes were up and running by the end of January, and another five were operational by mid-February. There are now 25 satellite sites in the region.

With the high-speed network, people on the ground can access all corporate information just as if they were at headquarters in Rome. "There's no difference," Curran points out.


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