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ITU Official Gives Satellite Update in the Philippines

By Mark Holmes | November 20, 2013
WHO UN ITU Zavazava

MV-22 Ospreys assisting in the Typhoon Haiyan relief effort.
Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ricardo R. Guzman

[Via Satellite 11-20-13] The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is playing a key role in bringing communications to some of the worst hit areas of the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Cosmas Zavazava, chief of department, Project Support and Knowledge Management, ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), who is on the ground in the Philippines, told Via Satellite that the ITU has now deployed 150 satellite terminals on site.

“The equipment is used to coordinate humanitarian assistance in the affected areas across the country. This includes food distribution, water supply, medical delivery, etc. The ITU has further provided 40 satellite terminals to the World Health Organization (WHO) for use by their medical teams on the ground. Broadband terminals are also provided Internet services for the victims and for the authorities. Victims are also using this equipment to call loved ones,” he said.

Satellite technology is playing a key role in bringing communications to the worst affected areas of the country. In terms of how much satellite capacity might be needed over the next few weeks, Zavazava said, “Many humanitarian agencies and government agencies are relying on satellite communications: satellite phones, broadband satellite terminals for data, and VSATs for much needed bandwidth. A lot of capacity is needed right now. But as in previous emergencies, demand will tend to slide back to normal as restoration of basic services is completed. Fortunately, not many complications are being experienced in terms of interference and congestion – a nightmare in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. ITU has also supplied terminals from three satellite operators to avoid risking communication failure should something happen – for example, traffic overload.”

Zavazava describes the role of satellite as “critical,” particularly in difficult places with non-functional infrastructure. “Search and rescue, human logistics, and general communication will continue to depend on satellite communications as a lifeline,” he said. “Now, and in the future, wireless and satellite communications will continue to be a humanitarian community’s best friend.”

Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Visayas region of central Philippines with deadly force, making landfall five times, in the provinces of Eastern Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Panay Island and Palawan. The combination of powerful winds and seawater has devastated buildings, communities and families. Zavazava said the recovery progress has been challenging but that it is progressing. “A great effort is in providing response efforts. At this stage, this is progressing well with more and more interventions taking root. Owing to infrastructure damage, some areas are not accessible and others not easily so. What is most encouraging is that, while rehabilitation of telecoms infrastructure might take time, alternative systems are being put in place to provide much needed connectivity,” he added. “The private sector is also working hard to restore services. Funding, human resources, and balancing response and recovery are some of the challenges.”

The response of the ITU is critical in bringing about communications that will ultimately help the Philippines rebuild from this terrible tragedy. Of the challenges facing the ITU, Zavazava said, “Rapid transportation is an issue, transportation of satellite battery terminals has become a big challenge, according to IATA rules on flying such equipment on board commercial airlines. ITU’s unique position as a Specialized Agency of the United Nations gives it a big advantage: being a specialized agency of the united nations means the government and the regulatory authority of the country helps them get equipment into the country without going through all the regular hurdles.” Additionally, ITU has 193 member states and a strong membership from the private sector with more than 700 companies. “This opens doors to availability of more resources for saving lives when disasters strike,” he said.

In terms of what happens next, over the next week, the ITU will maintain a presence in the Philippines assisting with regulatory issues, deployment of more resources to needy areas, support to other United Nations agencies and NGOs, assessment of network damages and support in the rehabilitation. Zavazava added the ITU will continue beyond the coming week to help the government with work on their National Emergency Telecommunications Plan, including designing early warning systems such as the one ITU designed and deployed in Philippines’ Catanduanes province a few years back, and developing related Standard Operating Procedures.