Satellite Communications: The good and the ugly!

Over the past 15 years, there has been a massive expansion in the availability of mobile networks in developing countries. Many NGOs have adopted mobile phones as a primary form of communication. The costs associated with running mobile are very small compared with running a satellite telephones as mobile handsets and airtime are a fraction of the costs of using satellite. Due to the low price of GSM technology, more people in NGO teams are being issued with mobile phones by their organisations. This has really improved the efficiency of an operation as GSM has made it very easy to reach individuals in a team.  

Before GSM really took off, radio and satellite communications were the only means to communicate. For those of you who go back further than the 1990’s the only option back then was radio. Satellite and radio still has a major role to play as many NGOs operate in the most challenging places in the world where security may be poor and infrastructure weak. This week, it was brought to my attention that one mobile network in South Sudan failed for a number of weeks. This meant that people operating in the area affected had to revert to radio and satellite. Most organisations will have safety and security policies in place which defines the need for back up communications. Across the globe many NGOS and UN organisations operate very large sat-phone fleets.  Save the Children operates more than 600 satellite telephones. In this article, we will explore the “good” and the “not so good” about satellite communications.


 The Good: An essential safety net

 Satellite phones do not relay on local infrastructure which makes them a great back up for emergencies or as a means for routine communication in remote places where there are gaps in coverage. Very recently the higher end models from Thuraya, Iridium and Inmarsat have included a distress button so that help can be summoned in an emergency. Iridium has partnered with GEOS ( where all active Iridium phones (Iridium Extreme and Iridium Go) can be registered for the basic monitoring service at no extra cost. Monitoring is activated by filling in an online form with details about two emergency contacts. Once set up, if the emergency button is pressed, the Iridium will send location details to the GEOS monitoring centre where duty staff will attempt to contact the people listed on its system.

For an additional fee, GEOS can be more proactive and instigate a call on behalf of the satellite phone owner to capable rescue authorities. In places where search and rescue is not provided by the government, GEOS have arrangements in place for calling in private airplanes and helicopters for search and rescue or medivac. Whilst the monthly subscription is very low, organisations should be prepared to be hit with a hefty bill should private SAR resources are mobilised. Emergency buttons on most sat phones have a cover which means that accidental alerts should not occur. If subscribing organisations do sign up to GEOS, end users should be thoroughly briefed.  

 Thuraya does not have an agreement with any external organisation, however its SOS button can be set up to call or send a message to any pre-defined contact. Inmarsat has Search and Rescue in its DNA. Inmarsat was founded initially as an NGO to provide direct voice communications and distress alerting capability for ships at sea which still exists to this very day. On land, Inmarsat’s new IsatPhone 2 includes a button where distress messages can be sent to pre-set numbers.

Whilst both Inmarsat and Thuraya do not have any formal agreement with a monitoring centre, there are organisations such as Sicuro of Dubai who can offer such services. Organisations can also make their own arrangements by setting up an emergency phone manned by a security officer 24/7 to receive calls for help.

Older sat phones will not have that emergency button, however an emergency contact number can be added to the speed dial list.


The Ugly: Satellite telephone SIM card frustration 

Satellite phones are a great resource, especially in times of emergency. However managing a fleet of over 600 devices for an NGO such as Save the Children comes with it challenges. The majority of funding comes from institutional donors and quite rightly, NGOs are directed to go to the market on a regular basis to seek out the best deal. The satellite networks do not deal direct with subscribing organisations, instead specialists organisations such as Castell Satcom Radio exists to resell services on behalf of all networks. In the NGO community we are fortunate to be served by some great resellers, but in my opinion the market is completely broken as it is not easy to migrate between providers.  

Over the years, I have launched a tender for satellite services on at least four occasions for NGOs. The tendering process is meant to get the best deal on the table for NGOs. Each time a tender is launched, various resellers will make a big effort to bid for business.  The big challenge begins if an organisation receives a better deal and wants to switch to a new provider. For Save the Children, that means 600 SIM cards would need to be sent to hundreds of destinations. People need to physically swap each SIM card, from HQ level, trying to get everyone is more of a challenge than you might think. A recent exercise to swap 150 SIM cards was launched 7 months ago following the migration of Merlin into SCI. The task is still ongoing but will soon be complete.

I have migrated SIM cards on at least three occasions in the past, and it was painful on each occasion. In a few years time when we go out to the market again, the idea of having to change 600+ SIM cards does not fill me with joy.

In a bidding contest, we ask the market to compete which they do well. Across all of the bids, there is not a massive difference in pricing. The cost of the effort to swap 600 SIM cards will far outweigh the savings made due to the cost in time to change SIM cards. So the market is really broken and all of the networks need to step in and fix it. The current arrangement is neither good for the NGOs or the resellers. The NGOs cannot drive down costs in airtime by switching providers due to the effort required. The resellers have very little prospect of winning new business from the completion, so nobody is winning here. With each reseller being within a gnats breath of each other with airtime pricing, the only incentive I would have to move to a new provider is if I was receiving very bad service from my current provider. My advice for any organisation who might be setting up satellite communications for the very first time is to ensure you get the right provider from the start. This way, pain will be avoided in the future.

The other big frustration is that each time we change a SIM card, the phone number changes as well.   

Whilst the technology is brilliant, the account management side of the operation needs to improve and it’s the big networks like Inmarsat, Iridium and Thuraya which needs to fix things. We need each network to simply set up a system where organisations can migrate from one provider to another without the need to swap SIM cards and change phone numbers. Lessons can be learnt from the cellular telecoms industry as in some countries there are systems in place for people to retain the same number if the move from one provider to the next. The system could be as simple as the old provider giving the client an authorisation code to migrate the SIM and phone number to the new provider. The activity stays on the same network so should be achievable. What I am not asking for is the ability to swap numbers between different networks as this is certainly not needed and technically unfeasible.  

The satellite communications get full marks from me for recent service and technology innovation, but I am now calling on the networks to provide a reliable account migration system so that we can turn the world of portable satellite communications into a truly competitive market place.  

Exploring GIS and data collection.

“GIS” is a term used very frequently within the humanitarian sector and stands for Geographical Information System. For many, this conjures up the image of very complicated IT systems. GIS can be a very complex science as it’s the place where maps and big data will meet. In this article, I n this article, I am going to put the potlight on GIS as a concept and explain what GIS is all about. I will also point you in the direction of resources where you can try out GIS for yourself.

GIS is not new
osMaps have been in existence for centuries and defined in some dictionaries as “A representation of the earth’s surface or part of it” Maps are more complex than this definition as they go well beyond simple aerial photographs. When drawn in graphical form such as the UK map (left), information can be added about the features. Contours show how steep the hills are, the red shade shows land which belongs to the army and dangerous to enter. Symbols are used to identify items of interest such as a public telephone. A map is therefore graphical information in its own right. Before the computer age, the Graphical Information  System would possibly have been a filing cabinet of information which would be used by map makers to make up the maps such as the ordnance survey maps used in the UK.air map

 Maps such as ordnance survey are made for mass production and often referred to as base maps. There are many specialists professions who require specific information to be added to maps .The Aviation industry is a good example where information regarding flight paths,  no-fly zones and airfield approaches are overlaid onto standard maps so that pilots can find their way around.


How technology disrupted map making
Specialist maps which contain additional information have mainly been limited to certain professions and would have been expensive to produce due to short print runs. The process of adding additional and new information would be a combination using ink to write new information onto a map, and a method to provide feedback to the original mapmaker so that new information could be included in the next edition of the map. Advances in printing technology and computerised mesriapping systems has enabled maps containing very customised information to be produced on demand.  Large format printers and GIS software has brought the art of mapmaking from the large map makers straight to places where maps will be used. One prime example of where maps are needed in a hurry is during disaster relief.

ESRI is one of the worlds leaving GIS systems and provides software either as an online system or as software loaded directly on a computer.

GIS in actionnargis map
A good GIS system will have a collection of base maps to which data can be added. Any form of data can be added to maps to be represented as graphical information. In large scale emergency responses, organisations such as MapAction will often deploy GIS volunteers from the mapping industry to create the many maps which will be required as part of the response.   

Let’s look at an example;

 In 2008, Cyclone Nargis passed through SW Myanmar and affected the population in the delta. MapAction used a combination of satellite imagery and aerial photography to produce the map of the affected areas. The map to the left shows the areas affected by flood (illustrated by red shade) and the path of the cyclone (blue line).

In any emergency the initial maps will display basic information about what damage has been done and what populations have been affected. This information is vital for emergency response organisations as they will be able to use the maps to make decisions about where relief efforts need to be focused.

As the response develops, coordination bodies such as UN OCHA, national and local government will require “WWW” information (Who is providing assistance, Where they are working and What services they provide).

Data can be a challenge
The key challenge faced by map makers is the wide range of data formats people use for different purposes. The basic data about who is doing what and where, is normally the starting point a later on, other people will begin to collect monitoring and evaluation data which can also be used to build maps.

 Whilst ESRI’s ArcGIS products have emerged almost as the industry standard tool to create maps, in the same was as Microsoft Word is the system of choice to create documents, the journey towards identifying a suite of tools for collecting data is still being made. Data collection is recognised as an issue and each year, new initiatives are launched to solve the issue. The problem is that many of these initiatives are looking at the same set of issues. I feel that it would be more fruitful if the various organisations looking at data collection could start to work together in order to define a new standard for data collection and create a suite of tools to collect it?

Does ESRI have the solution?
Amongst the many data collection initiatives ESRI launched a new smartphone application to collect data. The app is available for android and apple smartphones collectorand tablets. The new app is called “Collector for ARGIS” and can be configured with forms to collect information for ARCGIS maps. This new app was launched using lessons learnt by ESRI during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The screenshots below shows a form used to collect information about damage to properties and how families were affected by an Earth quake. If the smartphone is online, the data is immediately sent to ESRI servers for so that people can see the most up to date situation as data is collected by people on the ground. The apps also work offline and will store data until the field teams reach a place where they can connect to the internet and upload data

Try it for yourself
GIS is the place where data meets mapping. ESRI is often considered as the “Swiss Army Knife” of GIS systems has it has so many tools available.  Argis Online (, is an internet resource where it’s possible for people to create their own maps and share them with others. Anyone can sign up with a Public account which allows people to create basic maps. Public accounts have limited features but it’s possible to create maps and manually overlay text and shapes. A fully featured account includes many data tools. It’s possible to explore the advance functions by signing up for a 60 day trial. In the example below, a map has been created which shows expected radio coverage from two radio stations.

chad map

Whilst GIS is a well-established discipline with ESRI considered as the leading system, there remains some challenges around the task of collecting data. I would like to think that the new ArcGIS collector is showing some promise and as it is designed by ESRI, the prospect of a standard turnkey system which collects data and produces the same maps will make the art of GIS a lot more efficient. ESRI has a global footprint of resources which means that support is available in most places and in many languages. There is also a massive amount of online training materials to support ESRI products – much of it free of charge.