Telecom charity forges links for tsunami victims
by Elizabeth Judge
Vodafone and its industry peers are backing a new kind of aid for
AS EARLY images of the Asian tsunami disaster were flashed around
the world, an aircraft loaded with equipment touched down in Sri Lanka
at Colombo international airport.
Within minutes, technicians had set up an emergency
telecommunications centre with satellite phone lines and high-speed
internet connections. Relief organisations were quick to avail
themselves of the service. Satellite lines were made available to
hospitals and to link survivors with the outside world.
The initiative was the work of Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF), a new
charity backed by companies including Vodafone, Cable & Wireless
and Inmarsat. With fixed-line and mobile networks down, the victims in
many of the tsunami-struck regions – as in other disaster zones – had
no way of finding out whether relatives were alive, nor of contacting
friends and family in other countries to provide help.
Speaking from a refugee camp in the Hambontota district, in southeast
Sri Lanka, Oisin Walton, 25, a full-time member of TSF, explained that
the use of a satellite phone had provided not only a physical help but
a huge psychological uplift to the tsunami survivors. “It is just
amazing the difference a simple call can make,” he said. “You can see
it in the faces of these men and women who have literally lost
That morning the group had helped one woman to track down her son,
who was based in a navy ship near to the coast where the tsunami hit.
“When she heard his voice the tears were streaming down her face,” Mr
Over the next ten days Mr Walton and his team will roam between
refugee camps in the area, providing this new-style help. A second TSF
crew, from the group’s Asian base in Bangkok, is gearing up to join
Once the normal phone networks are up and running, their job will be
done and they can return home.
The man behind TSF is Jean-François Cazenove, a former worker with
France Télécom, the French telecoms group, who now works full-time
out on the ground with the charity.
M Cazenove launched TSF in 1998 after realising that, along with
medicine and food, there was a real need for telecommunications in
disaster zones. On assignment in Kosovo, he realised how desperate
people were to communicate with others. Mr Walton said: “People kept
presenting him with pieces of paper with their relatives’ numbers on,
asking if he would call them. The next time he went out he took one
satellite phone and literally several hundreds of people were queuing
to use it.”
With communication networks destroyed or jammed, it can be hugely
difficult for rescue teams to co-ordinate their actions and for
families to communicate.
However, the advance of technology and the shrinking size of
electronic equipment has made it increasingly easy for mobile teams to
respond in all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of situations.
TSF, which is based in Pau, France, has played a major role in relief
efforts in crisis areas such as Baghdad, the Philippines and Grenada.
The organisation has only six full-time paid members. The rest of the
20-strong crew is made up of volunteers from every sector of industry.
When disaster strikes, they aim to be in the affected regions within
24 to 48 hours.
Vodafone, which has just donated £100,000 to TSF to help its work in
the tsunami- affected regions, says: “Emergency telecommunications
are a critical aspect of any humanitarian rescue operation.
“TSF’s ability to contribute satellite phones and high-speed internet
connections in affected areas is a great benefit to aid organisations
in their decision-making.”