For what must have felt like several agonizingly long hours on Friday, as Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino couldn’t get in touch with the two men he had tasked with preparing the country for the super storm. Finally, as evening fell, the defense secretary and interior secretary got their hands on a satellite phone and updated the president from their perch in the stricken city of Tacloban, where telecommunications services had been obliterated. “We can’t even broadcast to tell the people to proceed to the [village] hall for the distribution of relief goods,” Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II later told a radio station. Instead, Roxas relied on “scouts” who hopped on bicycles and conveyed messages to isolated communities. Some Filipinos in the hard-hit region resorted to scrawling notes to loved ones on scraps of cardboard and paper plates, and passing them along to journalists. "Don't worry we're all safe, except the wrecked house," one wrote. "Ging-Ging and Son was found dead. Please inform Mana, mano, Ed and Madayday."
It’s the kind of dire situation that has now prompted Aquino to call for the development of an ambitious “all-weather communication system” for the country, one of the world's most cyclone-exposed nations. And it’s a predicament many Filipinos still find themselves in four days after one of the strongest typhoons in history made landfall, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. In a country where there are more cell phone subscriptions than people, local telecommunications providers say they've only managed to partially restore service in the most devastated areas.
Enter the folks at Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF, or Telecoms Without Borders)—who, along with volunteer online mapmakers, are part of the next generation of humanitarian workers. The NGO was founded in the late 1990s in response to conflict in the Balkans and Iraqi Kurdistan (the first phone call its founders ever placed was for an Albanian refugee, in 1998), and it now has bases in France, Nicaragua, and Thailand—strategically placed so that the group can deploy to crises within 24 hours).
The organization's employees rushed to the Philippines ahead of the storm, and there are now three teams on the ground running improvised telecommunications centers near Tacloban for first responders affiliated with the Philippine government, the United Nations, and NGOs.
TSF teams fly into emergencies armed with lightweight satellite communications equipment that can fit in carry-on luggage. That includes the BGAN (above, right), which is about the size of a laptop. You can plug a phone into it and get voice service, or connect it to a Wi-Fi router and set up broadband Internet access for a small office (the detached part in the image is a battery). The toolset also includes a smaller IsatPhone Pro (left), which can act as a phone or as a kind of Wi-Fi hotspot when plugged into a computer. The IsatPhone Pro's battery supports eight hours of talk time—not far off from the iPhone's battery life.
When telecommunications networks on the ground are down, TSF teams use these devices to achieve basic connectivity—bandwidth-heavy applications and web content are usually blocked—though that usually means they have to station the equipment outside, in the line of sight of satellites. "In the same way you can use AM radio and still be in the basement, but you can't get a DirecTV signal unless you have a dish on the roof—it's the same concept here," Paul Margie, a U.S.-based representative for TSF, tells me.
In the image below, for instance, a TSF employee working outside a shelter in the Philippines this week unloads a suitcase that likely carried a BGAN and other devices like a laptop and printer (you can see part of the BGAN in the bottom left).
TSF teams tend to establish emergency communications centers for first responders in strategic locations, like hospitals or the airport in Tacloban, pictured below.
TSF also operates what it calls a "humanitarian calling" program, with teams fanning out to areas where displaced people are concentrated and offering them three-minute phone calls to family members or friends.
"If you can imagine being separated from everyone and being in a place that is unfamiliar to you and not really knowing what's happening to you next, then you can see both the practical and psychological value of being able to reconnect with the rest of the world, even for three minutes," Margie says (according to Margie, any longer than three minutes and you won't have time for everyone in a camp to make calls; any shorter and each person won't have enough time to communicate with their loved ones). As my colleagues at Quartz point out, this need is particularly acute in the Philippines, where roughly 10 percent of the population works abroad.
In the photo below, people gather at a "free call" center in Tacloban, as one woman uses an IsatPhone Pro to make a call.
TSF teams work with local service providers as well to assess damage to telecommunications infrastructure. A TSF employee is pictured below, likely after one such survey of Tacloban this week. According to Margie, it could take two months to reboot telecom services in the hardest-hit areas of the Philippines.
TSF isn't alone in this work. Smart Communications, like other local telecommunications companies, is deploying its own satellite technology (including SatSleeve, which can transform an iPhone into a portable satellite device) and working with groups like TSF to set up free calling and cell phone-charging locations in cities and towns. And a team of volunteers with the Vodafone Foundation, the telecommunications company's charitable arm, is now en route to Palo in the province of Leyte to help set up an "instant network"—a portable mobile phone network weighing just 220 pounds that can be packed into four suitcases. The generator-powered equipment includes an antenna, a computer, and a base transceiver station that connects mobile devices to the network, and can support 15,000 simultaneous text messages or 100 calls within a seven-mile range. The video below documents how these instant networks worked in the Philippines after a typhoon last year:
Ultimately, the Philippines will have to do a better job weatherproofing its telecommunications networks to avert Haiyan-level destruction in the future. For now, scrappier methods will have to do.