Ericsson plans disaster response programme

Ericsson Response, the Swedish equipment vendor's disaster relief arm, is in early discussions with the United Nations (UN) and local telecoms operators about plans to implement a crisis preparedness programme for Southern and Western Africa.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 29, 2003

Ericsson Response, the Swedish equipment vendor's disaster relief arm, is in early discussions with the United Nations (UN) and local telecoms operators about plans to implement a crisis preparedness programme for Southern and Western Africa.

The move would see the voluntary organisation's communications equipment put on standby in the region to be used in the event of natural disasters or humanitarian crises, and be managed by Ericsson's local office in Johannesburg.

"We will build up some kind of toolbox that can be used in disasters," says Dag Nielsen, director, Ericsson Response. "We have a meeting with the UN in New York in January to see if they are interested to do this with us. We would also like to work together with other partners from the private and public sector," he adds.

The organisation, which was formed by Ericsson following an internal corporate citizenship study in 1999, is currently investigating where to situate the equipment and the level of logistical and human resources it would need to put the project in place.

The preparedness programme would also supplement Ericsson Response' current hubs in Turkey and Southern Italy, which were used as a base from which to supply mobile networks in Liberia and Algeria earlier this year.

"Our goal is to build up a volunteer organisation that can work in disaster response," says Nielsen. "We are looking for employees within Ericsson and are already in discussions with operators to see if they want to be part of the programme," he adds.

The Response unit currently draws volunteers from within Ericsson and other telecoms equipment and service providers to assess damage and supply networks to public and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross and UN World Food Programme (WFP), to help them communicate.

It also works with local governments and NGOs to provide technical training and help prepare strategies to deploy infrastructure when existing networks are knocked out.

Nielsen claims the organisation can set up a GSM network - comprising base stations, microwave links and very small aperture terminal (VSAT)-based connections to a local switching centre - within 5 days of receiving the equipment and clearance from local authorities.

In Algeria, it provided support to 75 Swedish search and rescue personnel following the earthquake in May.

In Liberia, a team formerly bound for Iraq were sent into the country to help the WFP set up IT and telecoms equipment following civil unrest.

"NGOs in the field are not necessarily so good at using technology as they don't always have sufficient skills. An ordinary relief organisation could never put up a mobile network as it is too complex. That's where we feel the private sector could have a role," says Nielsen.

Meanwhile, in addition to the preparedness initiative, the organisation also recently received a commitment from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to extend GSM infrastructure in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The move would mirror a similar venture carried out in Tanzania in 2002 by Ericsson in partnership with local operator, Mobitel and the Red Cross.

The remote north-western area of the country was covered as part of the project, linking up refugee camps, schools and local communities for the first time and allowing humanitarian organisations to receive telecoms services at discounted rates.

"The plan is to expand Tanzania's existing mobile networks, where there is no coverage and no normal business case for the operator to put up any equipment," says Nielsen.

"We will do this as part of Ericsson's corporate responsibility programme, together with UNDP and the local operator," he adds.

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