Large-scale use of satellite communication too expensive for Médecins sans Frontières

Amsterdam 12 March 1999 In 1971, the French humanitarian organization, Médecins sans Frontières, was established. At present, there are head-offices in five European countries. Each year, the organization sends out a number of 1500 people, half of which are physicians. The aid programmes run in some 80 different countries all over the world. They specifically focus on the most elementary medical care for indigent populations in isolated and often war-raved regions which are almost inaccessible. In these circumstances, the access to reliable communication tools is of vital importance. In terms of confidentiality, communication by satellite meets all the required standards. Satellite applications for large-scale use however constitute a luxury which an organization, such as Médecins sans Frontières, simply cannot afford.

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In 1971, the French humanitarian organization, Médecins sans Frontières, was established. At present, there are head-offices in five European countries. Each year, the organization sends out a number of 1500 people, half of which are physicians. The aid programmes run in some 80 different countries all over the world. They specifically focus on the most elementary medical care for indigent populations in isolated and often war-raved regions which are almost inaccessible. In these circumstances, the access to reliable communication tools is of vital importance. In terms of confidentiality, communication by satellite meets all the required standards. Satellite applications for large-scale use however constitute a luxury which an organization, such as Médecins sans Frontières, simply cannot afford.

Médecins sans Frontières heavily depends on the co-operation of custom-house officers, ministries and other public services, in order to receive the required stamps on documents, and to timely deliver medicine loads at the aid-posts. An excellent communication with the local authorities is very important to the success of all logistic and administrative transactions. The organization equally maintains frequent contacts with the different head-offices and aid-posts. As a result, the qualitative requirements for the communication equipment are extremely high. During a long period, Médecins sans Frontières relied on radio communication but the medium was not secure enough. Since 1987, the physicians also use Inmarsat satellite telephones. The newest generation of satellite equipment can be used in all circumstances.

In many countries however, humanitarian organizations are opposed by the dictatorial regime. The chance exists that telephone conversations are listened in to by fighting parties. The information transmitted by the people of Médecins sans Frontières often has a confidential nature. The medical data can relate to acts of torture or other violations against human rights. In this particularly delicate type of situations, physicians have found that satellite communication presents itself as an ideal means to guarantee the safety of the local population and the organization workers, although there is never any total full-proof security. The greatest drawback for using satellite communication on a large scale lies in the high purchase and transmission costs. At present, satellite is applied for only 20% of the oral messages and for 50% of the written texts and spreadsheets.

For the remaining traffic, Médecins sans Frontières still relies on the radio and on plain telephone lines over land. On an annual basis, the Dutch division alone spends a quarter of the total communication budget on expenses for satellite. Yet, the medium is very popular among the workers in the field. No other communication system is able to surpass the ease of use, the level of reliability, as well as the high quality of the reception, offered by satellite equipment. The first generation of satellite equipment however was extremely heavy in weight while the batteries ran empty in no time. Since a few years, the organization has turned to the Inmarsat Mini-M. With far less weight and volume, this system is much more suitable for use in operations of a humanitarian nature. The 48 hour stand-by period and the three hour speech capacity are quite acceptable, as are the costs and the ease of use.

At first, Médecins sans Frontières experienced a few growing pains with the transmission of data by means of the Mini-M but not with the speech communication. The modem driver, the e-mail programme as well as the Sim-cards did not function properly. The exchangeable cards ideally have to identify each separate user but the system was too complex. It was neither possible to fax from one satellite phone to another one. Currently, the Mini-M offers great services but the medium is still in its infancy. Once you have a problem, the lack of adequate information can play tricks on you, as a little anecdote may illustrate. Satellite phones which don't respond anymore, not necessarily are broken. Two organization workers learned with trial and error that it was the electro-magnetic field of a nearby army basis which disturbed the signal. If only someone had made them aware of this, they wouldn't have had to send the equipment back.

For this article, the Automatisering Gids has served as a source of information.


Leslie Versweyveld

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