ITU Emergency Telecom Roster helps restore connectivity after hurricane hits Nicaragua

A powerful tropical hurricane ripped across Nicaragua earlier this month, with torrential rains triggering life-threatening flash floods and mudslides across the Central American country.

The Category 1 storm forced 13,000 people to evacuate to shelters, according to some reports – many with only the clothes on their backs.

“The river rose one metre in ten minutes,” according to eyewitness José Domingo Enríquez of the interior town El Rama, one of the worst-affected. “It was clear the flood was coming fast, and we had to find a way to evacuate.”

Critical electricity and telecommunications services were cut shortly after the storm made landfall, leaving a million people in the dark and worried about their loved ones’ safety.

Emergency Telecom Roster deploys

To help close connectivity gaps and bolster disaster response efforts in some of the country’s hardest-hit areas, two members of ITU’s Emergency Telecommunications Roster (ETR), a group of staff volunteers from across the organization, were deployed to Nicaragua.

Their mission – the first since the roster was created – was two-fold: deliver 10 Iridium satellite phones and 10 Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminals to help restore connectivity as soon as possible, and to provide training for local teams to use the equipment.

ITU will typically deploy equipment upon request from an ITU Member State following a natural hazard, after which the team aims to respond within 24 to 48 hours.

In Nicaragua’s case, the request came via the telecom regulator, TELCOR, and SINAPRED, the country’s national disaster management agency.

Once on the ground, roster members Mario Castro Grande and Hani Alser met with government officials to deliver the equipment, train Telcor and SINAPRED responders, and assess the damage.

According to Alser, local officials were extremely welcoming and highly appreciative of both the equipment and the expertise provided.

“Having at least one technical person and another that can communicate in the local language and knows the customs is key to a successful ETR mission,” added Castro Grande.

Beyond bringing equipment

Delivering critical emergency telecom equipment is only part of ITU’s work in this domain.

The UN agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) also supports the development and implementation of National Emergency Telecommunication Plans (NETP) among other regulatory and legal disaster preparedness frameworks.

“Nicaragua had a draft NETP back in 2014, but apparently it was shelved,” explained Castro Grande. “Our mission also served as a timely reminder that they should look at it again, with the objective of finalizing it.”

The ITU team also urged national authorities to implement an early warning system. This was another aspect of the mission, said Castro Grande. “We offered some information on appropriate available systems for developing countries, such as cell broadcasting, and informed them on legislative models they could look at.”

The ability of cell broadcast technology to push messages without being affected by traffic load makes it useful during emergencies when data traffic spikes, and regular SMS and voice calls tend to congest mobile networks.

“About 95 per cent of the global population is covered by a broadband network, with 5.7 billion mobile subscriptions, meaning at least 70 per cent of the world is connected,” Castro Grande pointed out. “Cell broadcasting technology should be used to its fullest potential to warn people ahead of disaster.”

Earlier this year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the United Nations would “spearhead new action to ensure every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within five years.” ITU is supporting this initiative, which is led by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Effective communication of disaster warnings saving lives in Fiji

Communication is key – especially when you are in the business of saving lives.

During their Ignite session on the second day of the Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Brisbane, Australia, the FMS presented on disaster risk communication and effective information sharing, in order to give people a better understanding of the importance of effective communication of warnings and understanding user needs.

FMS Medial Liaison Manager, Ms Ana Sovaraki, said the Fiji Meteorological Service, as well as being a Regional Meteorological Centres in the world, has always tried to ensure the effective and timely dissemination of warnings before and during disasters.

“Following the events of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2018, the Met Service realised, amongst other things, the need to improve and enhance communication and dissemination systems” she said.

It was then that the FMS decided to create a communications role within the department to develop communications strategies to ensure warning messages are reaching the users on time. They were the first Met Service in the region to do so.

The FMS has since worked on genuinely integrating communications into their forecasts and ensuring users of information understand the warnings which in turn helps communities prepare for natural disasters in Fiji.

One of the ways in which they have done this is through impact-based early warnings communicated effectively to prompt actions. The warning bulletins now include potential or expected impacts which they have found to be more relatable to people than just forecast warnings.

“For example, if there is a tropical cyclone and the forecast says to anticipate 50km/h winds, this information alone may not be understood by a layman,” Ms Sovaraki said.

“However, if we integrate the anticipated or possible impact by saying that this wind strength is capable of ripping off roofs and uprooting trees, it can be more relatable to people and they can then take action based on that information. Impact-based communications ensures that the information is understandable, relatable, and reaches the last mile.

Another key aspect of effectively communicating forecasts and warnings is to understand the needs of users and developing user-specific products and information to meet those needs.

“We can have the best warning and forecasts, and our Communications people can give us the best key messages but if does not meet the needs of the users, then those warnings and messages do not serve a purpose,” said Director of the Fiji Met Services, Mr Terry Atalifo.

“The Met Service is moving towards trying to understand the needs of people, how vulnerable they are to disasters, and the risks these people face during disasters. This will place us in a better position to ensure that the service they provide meets these needs and requirements.”

The FMS does this by continuing to engage with stakeholders, which is a key component of their work.

“We have meetings and national forums every year to make sure that we understand the needs of these stakeholders.”

Mr Atalifo thanked all their Pacific partners and those in Australia and New Zealand who provide the support to FMS to ensure that they are able to better understand the needs of people.

Information Technologies for Managing Federal Use

Radio-frequency spectrum is a scarce natural resource vital to many commercial and government activities, including weather observation, air traffic control, and national defense. NTIA and government agencies have a responsibility to manage their spectrum use wisely. To do so, agencies rely on different spectrum-related IT, but NTIA has recently highlighted that existing IT is out-of-date and hinders spectrum management.

Federal officials said modernization of spectrum-related federal IT could provide benefits such as greater sharing of the limited spectrum and improved efficiency. For example, the current process for assigning spectrum relies on manual reviews of frequency requests and manual input of data. Automation could reduce errors and speed the process.

The FY21 NDAA contains a provision for GAO to review the current spectrum-related IT of covered agencies. This report describes (1) the existing spectrum-related IT that covered agencies employ to manage their spectrum use, and (2) the opportunities covered agencies and NTIA identified for improving spectrum management through IT modernization. The FY21 NDAA also contains a provision for GAO to conduct oversight of the implementation of agencies' spectrum-related IT modernization plans. This topic will be the subject of future GAO work.

Federal agencies use a variety of information technologies (IT) to manage their use of radio-frequency spectrum. The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21 NDAA) required the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and covered agencies to develop plans to modernize their spectrum-related IT (i.e., the software, databases, and other tools that comprise their spectrum infrastructure).

Currently, the NTIA provides agencies with some spectrum-related IT systems, such as software, databases, and engineering tools, so that they can participate in NTIA's spectrum management processes. These processes include assigning frequencies for agencies to use and certifying spectrum-dependent equipment. GAO found that all 20 agencies covered by the FY21 NDAA modernization requirement rely at least in part on NTIA-provided IT to manage their spectrum use. Additionally, most of these agencies—DOD and the Federal Aviation Administration, in particular—augment NTIA-provided IT with additional spectrum-related IT that meets their unique mission needs.

Many of the officials GAO interviewed broadly agreed that modernizing spectrum-related IT could provide opportunities to improve spectrum management, mostly related to the following: (1) improving current spectrum management processes by addressing some limitations in existing spectrum-related IT and (2) facilitating the potential for greater spectrum sharing (i.e., enabling more than one spectrum user to use the same frequency band without interfering with each another). As NTIA and the covered agencies advance their modernization efforts in 2022, it is not yet clear if their plans will target these opportunities.


How ITU provides emergency telecommunications in a pandemic

“We have to prepare everything in advance so that when a disaster strikes, the only thing that we have to do is pack the equipment and take it to where it is needed,” explained Jake Spinnler from ITU’s Emergency Telecommunications Division.

Spinnler is part of the ITU Emergency Telecommunications team and currently coordinating ITU’s Emergency Telecommunications Roster (ETR), a voluntary group of ITU staff from across the organization on stand-by to deploy the services on short notice.

“In the last few months, we have been checking and testing the satellite phones and Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) terminals to see if the equipment is complete, if it works correctly or we need to buy spare parts,” added Spinnler, who has been trained to use emergency telecommunications equipment, helping to ensure vital communication networks are maintained during relief efforts.
The year of disasters

Disasters don’t stop during a pandemic. In 2020, 389 disasters impacted 98.4 million people globally.

Additionally, according to the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, extreme weather events that we are facing today – from cyclones in India to devastating floods in China, widespread wildfires in North America and enduring droughts across Africa – are set to continue and worsen in the decades to come.

Telecommunication networks are critical to coordinating relief efforts, but are often destroyed when disaster strikes.

At the request of Member States, in the aftermath of a disaster, ITU deploys temporary information and communication technology (ICT) solutions to help restore telecommunication links needed for response efforts. The ITU ETR is a new addition to this service.

“I have visited nearly all countries in the world, taking this equipment to help them to use it for response coordination efforts and assist in recovery from disasters,” said Maritza Delgado, ITU’s Emergency Telecommunications Programme Officer.

“Sometimes these are the only phones that are available in the disaster zones, and the only channel for organizations to coordinate with different stakeholders in charge of overall disaster management.”

Direct impact on the ground

Although training was largely conducted online during the COVID pandemic – from using the equipment to personal safety training – some aspects still need to be done in person.

To ensure life-saving equipment is in full working order, the ETR team needs to test it regularly. This equipment includes BGAN terminals, Iridium satellite phones and other terminals.

“As a Radiocommunication Engineer, working with these satellite devices is a great opportunity for hands-on experience,” said Veronique Glaude, Senior Radiocommunication Engineer in ITU-R. “This equipment is vital to assist first responders for timely communication and enable them respond to the humanitarian needs of the affected individuals and communities. It is a real honour for me to be part of that process.”

For many ITU staff, being part of the ETR has had a positive impact on their work at ITU.

“One of my roles in ITU is Acting Advisor to ITU-T Study Group 2, which plays a leading role in ITU standards development for disaster relief, early warning, network resilience and recovery. The ETR provides a direct connection between theory and practice,” said Rob Clark, Study Group Project Coordinator in ITU-T.

“Being part of the ETR has enlightened me on the role that ITU is playing alongside its partners in the field of emergency telecoms and disaster relief. It also reminds me of the direct impact of ITU’s work on the ground. This is a useful perspective to incorporate into my ‘day job’ supporting ITU members’ development of international telecommunication standards,” he said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with in-person deployments suspended due to travel restrictions, ITU strengthened partnerships with satellite providers to provide the necessary connectivity and equipment.

These partnerships ensured that ITU could continue to support countries in the aftermath of disasters.

[Source: ITU]