Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 16:38 UK

Burma blocks emergency telecoms

By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

A survivor of Cyclone Nargis is seen in a makeshift shelter in Tontay
More than two million people are thought to have been affected

Two teams of foreign aid workers dedicated to delivering emergency telecoms in disaster areas have been forced to leave cyclone-hit Burma.

The members of Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) left the country after attempts to reach affected areas were blocked.

The charity, which described the situation as "unprecedented", said it had no other choice but to leave.

TSF finally reached Burma on 1 June after waiting nearly a month to be granted visas to enter the country.

"The frustration is that we were allowed into the country but not allowed to deploy," TSF spokesman Oisin Walton told BBC News.

Many international charities were allowed into Burma following a visit to the area by UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon.

But repeated attempts to get the necessary authorisation to visit affected areas such as the Irrawaddy Delta, were met with a wall of silence.

"We got no reply at all," said Mr Walton.

Time lags

TSF is a specialist agency which works with the UN to provide communication support to aid agencies and local people. Its presence was requested by Unicef following Cyclone Nargis on 2 May.

TSF KITLIST
TSF phone (TSF)

BGan satellite link (data and voice: 496kbps). Primary connection
Gan M4 satellite link (data and voice: 64kbps). Used as backup
Large VSAT satellite dish for long term deployments
At least two satellite phones including a mobile device
Mobile phones and local sim cards if GSM infrastructure intact
Routers and access points for communication centre
Wireless relays to extend coverage
PCs, printer and scanner
GPS
Power packs including car batteries and solar panels

But despite being granted visas to enter the country - one month after the event - the teams were held in Rangoon.

In the meantime other charities were given the go ahead to deploy to the worst affected regions.

Mr Walton believes that TSF was blocked because of the nature of its work.

"They obviously didn't want us in the affected areas with telecommunications equipment," said Mr Walton.

Some charities have had communications equipment held at the border, he said. Limited facilities are currently being provided by Unicef and the World Food Programme (WFP).

"Aid agencies are doing a wonderful job but the government is not helping," he said.

Had the charity reached the disaster, teams would have set up communications centres for other charities and organisations.

These contain all the telecoms and IT equipment found in a normal office - including printers, scanners, laptops and phones - housed in a tent or temporary shelter.

Connections are made via satellite links.

In addition, it offers "welfare" calls to affected people, allowing them to make contact with friends and family.

The charity has a commitment to the UN to deploy within 48 hours but is generally in the field within just 24 hours.

"We are an emergency response NGO," said Mr Walton. "But it's not really an emergency response two months after the event."




SEE ALSO
Burma's emergency telecoms delay
09 May 08 |  Technology
Building digital life lines
06 May 08 |  Technology

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