SES & Friendship: How Satellites Fit into Humanitarianism
Satellite communications has completely changed the way Friendship, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Bangladesh, administers its humanitarian services. One of its biggest accomplishments to date was the establishment of three hospital boats to serve ultra-poor communities along riverbanks, a feat that Friendship founder Runa Khan said could not have been achieved without the connectivity provided by SES’ Satmed e-health platform.
Bangladesh is known for its swollen rivers, which deposit large accumulations of silt and sediment called “chars.” Farming families inhabit these fertile islands, but because the chars get washed away over time, it’s impossible to build permanent structures like hospitals nearby. To provide medical assistance to families in this area, Friendship built three makeshift hospitals on boats — and on these barges SES installed Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) to establish communications with far-flung doctors via Satmed.
According to Khan, Friendship’s primary objective is not just to give the poor access to better technology, but to create an ecosystem that can be built upon to improve quality of life across the community. “The ultra-poor need everything. They need health, clothes, education, governance, access to finance, the whole package — because they don’t have anything,” she told Via Satellite. “We started by creating an ecosystem for their needs.”
Nicole Robinson, SES’ vice president of government market solutions, said the company had a similar thought in mind when it began developing its end-to-end solutions geared toward humanitarian efforts. In an interview with Via Satellite, she noted that having an “enduring presence” after a new communications network has been established is one of the main factors driving the needs of the humanitarian sector.
To that end, Friendship has turned to satellites to enable holistic solutions for the communities it serves. “The people we deal with are 80 percent migratory. We built hospital management software, Human Resources (HR) software, and training tools because they are so far away from the mainland and need to be consistently monitored,” Khan said. Most important, she added, was the creation of a patient database that doctors in the area can leverage at any time. “We can manage that so much better because we have real-time data connectivity,” she said.
Khan also sees satellites as a necessity for setting up functional schools in the region. “There can be a whole island with 2,000 people and not even one can read, write or do basic mathematics,” she said. To educate these civilians, Friendship partners with teachers from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to record lessons remotely. But although a limited education is better than none at all, Khan said she hopes to see the connectivity improve further to enable classroom sessions that stream in real time. “It doesn’t have to be VSAT but it must be uninterrupted. Children come walking from 2 kilometers away; we don’t want them to have to go back because there is no electricity or no connection,” she said.
Khan said she hopes to see satellite technology continue to develop so that Friendship can take advantage of better connectivity to create new solutions. “We would like to have a satellite-based emergency response system,” she said, because not only does Bangladesh have one of the highest population densities in the world, the country is also particularly vulnerable to climate change. “Islands are breaking and reforming and with climate change this is going to get much worse,” she said.
Other solutions the organization hopes to implement include satellite-based drones to deliver emergency supplies such as fresh blood and a satellite-enhanced GIS mapping system, since the country’s land formations change so often along the riverbelt.
As for SES, the company has introduced a suite of new solutions for the humanitarian market, including its Government+ Rapid Response Vehicle (RRV). Satellite trucks that provide data links certainly exist already, but Robinson described the RRV as more of a “Swiss army knife,” as it comes equipped with an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aerostat balloon to monitor the immediate area, and also generates a communications bubble within a range of 25 miles, not unlike a tethered cell tower.
Furthermore, applications such as SES’ emergency.lu, another of its e-health solutions, can be swapped in and out of the vehicle’s tool rack, meaning the RRV can be customized to fit a range of customer needs and environments. In the humanitarian sector specifically, Robinson said SES hopes to find a role beyond just short-term emergency response and integrate itself into more permanent solutions. This is primarily evident in the longer-lasting partnerships it is forming with organizations such as Friendship. “We now are beginning with the end user’s requirements … Instead of just lighting up transponders, providing bandwidth to our customers and wishing them good luck, we are now designing end-to-end solutions,” she said.
Robinson noted that the change has already started to have a positive impact on the balance sheet. “We’re seeing an increase in percentage in our book of business that’s attributable to what we’re calling bandwidth plus,” she said, which includes all of the additional capabilities, equipment, and program management SES is beginning to offer on top of its basic bandwidth services.
“We’re finding that it’s what more and more customers are desiring. In some cases you find that if you give customers broadband for free, they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” she added.
When asked to speculate on the profitability of humanitarian-focused products like Satmed, Robinson admitted that they probably won’t be the key growth driver for the company’s government vertical in the future. Still, SES sees value in such services on another level. “This effort really pulls at the heartstrings of SES,” she said. “It’s something very near and dear to us and something we feel responsible to contribute to.”