How to connect communities

Last month, I raised my concerns about how the Humanitarian Sector are pressing ahead with digital solutions but not considering the connectivity infrastructure needed to facilitate it. In this article, I will shine a light on how to build reliable and safe connectivity services for communities.

Setting up public Wi-Fi in public is complex and good planning is essential. Over the past 10 years, the Emergency Telecoms Cluster (ETC), Nethope and other agencies have provided connectivity in refugee settings across the world. I have supported some of these projects and there have been plenty of lessons the ICT community have learnt along the way.

Here is a high-level view on how to deliver a successful service and get it right first time. 

All successful projects must start with the community and other humanitarian actors in mind. Firstly, if digital programming is to be delivered in the setting, early conversations need to be started so that you have a good knowledge about any ICT4D solutions before meeting with community members. From a system design perspective, it’s important to understand how much bandwidth per person is needed for services to operate correctly.

The next step it to meet up with key local people from the communities to understand what sort of devices people use to access the internet, the type of information and services the communities would like to access and the best locations to locate equipment. Permissions may also need to be sought from key people to install equipment.

An important part of community engagement is to explain which services will be delivered. You should also be clear about what services may not be provided. In most projects, there may not be sufficient bandwidth to support entertainment and it’s likely that streaming platforms such as YouTube may be blocked. Managing expectations correctly must be a priority as if services are over promised, communities will become frustrated. Setting expectation correctly in advance will lead to a smooth implementation. Signage in local languages will also help when services are installed.

The community assessment will give engineers an idea of how many people will access systems at the same time. Headcount information combined with bandwidth requirements for ICT4D services will help technicians to decide how much total bandwidth will be needed to serve the community. User numbers will also be used to identify the correct technologies to source. Generally commercial equipment will be needed to delivery services rather than the cheaper routers used in domestic settings.

This is the part of the project where mistakes made could lead to unintended consequences. Firstly, technicians must ensure that Wi-Fi services are equitable. In some refugee settings, there could be multiple communities, so it’s essential that each community has equal access. Organisations may limit providing services in public locations such as libraries or schools where everyone has access, but even in public areas, care must be taken so that Wi-Fi does not cause issues for other services.

In 2021, Wi-Fi was installed in Mahama Camp, Rwanda to provide connectivity to a library building. On the opposite side of the road was the entrance to the clinic. When the service went live, crowds gathered to use the Wi-Fi and obstructed access to the clinic. Fences were soon installed to keep the entrance clear for patient access. So, key lesson learnt from this experience is to be mindful that Wi-Fi will attract a gathering of people where it could cause inconvenience to other services and activities nearby.

One other important factor to consider when locating IT equipment is the security of these systems. Core technologies should be installed in secure locations with access to stable power and Wi-Fi access points placed in locations where they cannot be easily removed.

As part of the system design, stable power must be provided to run the technology. Many sites will have unstable power of in some cases no power at all. Where there is intermittent power, battery backup systems such as UPS will ensure that services will continue during power outages. Renewable energy systems can also be a great solution for securing stable power. Solar energy is very popular, but space will be needed for panels. For locations where space is limited, wind power could be an option to consider if the local climate is suitable.

Think about how the community will be able to charge their devices. In many settings this may not be a problem at all as small shops within the camps may have solar charging which people can access for a small fee. If there are no means for people to charge technology, it is easy to provide USB charging stations as part of the project.

This is the topic where I get very frustrated with some organisations. Over the years I have seen countless examples where expensive equipment is placed in crisis settings. As communities start to use the Wi-Fi, they start to depend on it for communications and education. After a period (normally a year), the service fails because there is no funding for renewing the contract with the internet provider.

In a refugee camp, where NGOs provide water, shelter, and food, they don’t take all this away with no notice. The same ethos must now be applied to all services including Wi-Fi. For me, the lack of budgeting for longer term provision is a massive failure and, in my opinion, if a project cannot be funded for the longer term, it should not be started at all.

The manufacturers of Wi-fi equipment such as Cisco are massively generous with hardware, but generally do not fund connectivity. The telecoms sector could be doing much more in this space to support such projects by providing free of discounted services. They are often massive multinational organisations with the means to afford supporting humanitarian assistance.

In a nutshell, whilst we can deliver great services at pace, more work is needed on the funding side to keep services running beyond the first year!

Bandwidth to run the Wi-Fi services is some locations can be expensive, especially if satellite technologies are used. With a high volume of users, it will be necessary to limit the number of websites the community can access. As previously mentioned, streaming services such as YouTube are likely to be blocked.

Priority must always be given to essential services which are important to members of the community the project supports. is a good example of a service that will be of great value to refugees. This website has been created in a wide range of languages to provide communities with information about claiming asylum, accessing health care and many more services. This service has been operating in Greece for many years and has been showcased as a major success.

Education Technology (EdTech) is another important service where Wi-Fi systems have been set up to allow students to access to approved education content. In projects where we support a displaced population, the continuation of education for children is vital. Across Ukraine, there are many of examples of such services where educational content approved by the Ministry of Education is delivered every day.

In the assessment phase of a new project, when engaging local communities, also engage government officials such as Health and Education as well so that services can be provided to support these important thematic areas.

Next, but possibly most importantly, Wi-Fi services must be designed and delivered with privacy and security always in mind. In many cases the communities we support will have been displaced because of armed conflict. Alongside the physical wars, there is cyber war taking place. Bad actors (some government sponsored) will attempt to hack IT systems being used to support displaced communities. The activities can range from denying access to services to more sinister attempts to get information about people in the community you are supporting.

Cyber Security and data protection must be included into all projects where services are provided to communities. The threat is very real and there is plenty of evidence supporting this.

As I write this article, war taking place in Gaza where over one million people have been displaced. Before the war, the population in Gaza had regular access to services including Internet.

Famine is building up in Gaza as access for aid agencies is limited. When a ceasefire does take hold, the Aid Sector will need to move in at pace to deliver medical supplies, food, water, and other important non-food items. Alongside these lifesaving services, the community will also need access to digital services and connectivity. As an aid community, are we ready to deliver this?

We need to talk about connectivity for digital programming!

Across the Aid Sector (UN and NGOs) there is amazing progress made in the digital programming space (also known as ICT4D and T4D). Digital applications have a positive impact on communities through various services such as mobile money and cash vouchers, information sharing, feedback services and much more. Despite all these amazing programmes, I am becoming very concerned that many organisations in this sector are just focusing on digital programming and neglecting its enabler which is power and connectivity. In this article, I am going to advance the argument about why infrastructure-based services to communities remain not just important but essential for the success of Digital Programming.

Back in 2015, I was part of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) working group where the ETC 2020 strategy was launched. One objective of ETC2020 was to deliver “Service to Communities”.  Until ETC2020, the organisations focus was to facilitate connectivity and telecoms for aid agencies during major disaster responses. It was recognised that to provide connectivity to affected communities were becoming increasingly important. Around the same time, some organisations including NetHope were already at work in this space and providing connectivity to communities in the refugee camps in Greece.

Using the Nethope Wi-Fi services, IRC and Mercy corps was able to provide the website which informed refugees about humanitarian services and how to navigate complex asylum application processes. Later, this approached become the Signpost project Signpost–Who We Are — Signpost.

In addition to the Wi-Fi and the hosted information, charging points were set up in camps so that refugees could charge up their devices.

Today, the range of digital services to communities continue to increase. In 2022, NGOs and UN agencies provided SIM cards and information for people escaping war in Ukraine in public settings such as railway stations.

Around the world, there are many examples where digital programming is delivering benefits to communities. Frequently, some NGOs neglect to provide the infrastructure and services which are essential to facilitate digital programming. It is often said “This is not our business” or “Somebody else will do it” or “there is 4G everywhere” Unfortunately there are too many examples where these arguments will not stand up. In places where connectivity has not been provided, digital programming has not reached its full potential impact.  

The Gaza war have caused massive infrastructure damage and displaced most of the population. Internet services have been severely impacted. Mobile telephone networks are congested to such an extent that it is difficult to make calls and messages sent by SMS have been reported to take as long as 4 hours to arrive. Before the war started, mobile networks only supported 2G services (voice and SMS only).

Before the War, the Gaza mobile networks were limited to 2G services (voice and SMS) which limited digital programming to SMS based services. There will be a huge piece of work needed to initially provide modern connectivity in public places where aid is delivered. Longer term, the mobile networks need to be repaired and upgraded to modern 4G or 5G.

I want to dispel one myth about e-sims in Gaza.  It was suggested to me that we could facilitate the mass deployment of e-sims to the community to promote access to digital services. Unfortunately, this “Global North” is ill informed and will not help due to the state of telecoms across Gaza.

Typically, in any natural disaster or “hot war” situation, infrastructure breakdown is inevitable. Whilst the aid sector looks to local business to re-establish telecoms, the reality on the ground is very mixed. The telecoms sector in the Philippines strengthened its resilience against volcanic activities, cyclones, and earthquakes. In recent years, there have been various cyclones and other events which has called on the telecoms sector and government to implement their new disaster response plans. The preparedness planning has delivered good results as services are routinely being restored quickly after cyclones and seismic events.

As digital programming becomes more ubiquitous, the aid sector must do more to facilitate connectivity. For Save the Children International, I have recently developed a “Services to Communities” (S2C) approach where our in-house local expertise is used to deliver connectivity to affected populations. Clearly individual NGOs and UN Agencies will not have the capacity to connect a complete population, but they cab provide Wi-Fi hotspots in limited areas such as IDP/Refugee camps, clinics and schools and other public places supported by aid agencies and local partners.

This year (2024), I am running a project to preposition Wi-Fi and connectivity kits in some high-risk countries across the Global South. In my designs, I have included a solar energy module to power the Wi-fi technology and provide charging points for the community. Satellite kits are on standby in 4 regional locations so they can be brought in when a crisis the local internet services are destroyed.

Nethope training in Panama

In addition to pre-positioning equipment, we also need trained people available to deploy the kits and deliver services. Since 2016, some organisations including Save the Children International, Nethope, UNICEF and the ETC have been delivering high quality training to local ICT staff in all regions. The Save the Children “Technology for Emergencies” or (T4E) is a good example of how we have localised deployment of technicians instead of sending people on long flights from more developed countries.

My call to action is for the sector to not forget the importance of delivering the infrastructure needed to provide connectivity. There is no point in focusing 100% on digital solutions if communities do not provide connectivity, power to run the technology or charging points for communities. Digital programming needs to be more open to establishing partnerships with the infrastructure teams that exist in all ICT Departments.

In the months ahead, I hope that the situation in Gaza will become calm so that we in the Aid Sector can get in and do our work. Once we do gain access to the communities, there will be huge needs and it will be vital to provide safe and secure internet access so that the communities can access various services ranging from education to mobile money.

In my next article, I will be taking a deeper dive into the best practices for delivering services to communities (S2C)