Monday, May 4, 2015

Timor-Leste emergency communications: fact finding mission

The workshop on an Emergency Communications Plan for Timor-Leste was hosted by Autoridade Nacional de Communicações (ANC), also known as the National Communications Authority. I participated in the capacity of an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Emergency Communications Expert. Day 1 (27th Apr) of the workshop was attended by 40 participants from various emergency management and disaster mitigation organizations. Nine organizations from Government, Nongovernmental, and Private organizations presented their cases on critical infrastructure and information exchange platforms. Discussions highlighted frequency, safety, human capacity, and continuity related issue and were brought to ANC's attention.

Access my workshop slides

I was in Dili, 24 Apr. through 02 may. On Saturday 25th, a downtown fire burned down two shops. The fire department responding to the event were unable to save the two shops. The general opinion was an unsatisfactory one towards the City of Dili's Fire brigade. A reason they didn't take part in our workshop? They certainly could have taken full advantage of the forum to discuss the strengths and weakness of the efforts and collaboration and coordination with other agencies present at the event; a missed rare opportunity.

Alue farms to Dili markets
Staff affiliated with communications department of the Timor-Leste Red Cross, National Disaster Management Directorate, Ministry of Health, Maritime agencies, and Commercial Aviation requested ANC to act on a set of suggested regulatory issues. The three Telcos operating in Timor-Leste: Timor Telekom, Telemore, and Telecomcell were keen in participating in a pilot that involves investigating interoperability and warning techniques. A strong Internet connection for the National Emergency Operation Center (NEOC) and a common SMS database for focal point warnings were suggested as starting Corporate Social Responsibility activity by the Telcos. The Ministry of Health expressed the need to lower tariffs or subsidize them to support emergency medicine and public health.

Day 2 and 3 of the workshop was focused on warning and response aspects for interagency coordination, data collection, and information exchange. Participants were exposed to best practices; especially around the EDXL-CAP and EDXL-SITREP standards. They involved in several hands on exercises designed for a participatory approach to extracting issues on topics around the warning and response functions. Other discussions were on the lack of procedures and mandated organizations upholding their responsibilities.

The ANC and ITU team visited the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) managed by the National Police, National Defense Joint Forces/PNTL/Civil, and National Disaster Management Directorate (NDMD) operated NEOC. Police headquarters and NDMD have an inventory of VHF communications equipment. They are unused either on reasons of frequency allocation or the significant shortcoming of skilled resource person to operationalize the equipment. To supplement the shortcomings in the systems ought to be functioning, organizations have developed make-shift workarounds until such time they become a priority. For example, the dysfunctional Meteorological department is focusing their efforts on establishing a memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian meteorological services.
Fishing life on the beaches of Dili
There is very little or no communications system integration and adoption of interoperability to enhance system automation and decision support. At present, the NDMD EOC is quite motivated in developing and implementing systems and procedures. They already have an operational Sahana-based incident reporting system, namely the Timor-Leste Disaster Information System. The NDMD managed NDOC database is a platform for collecting disaster data. The work flow is such that data written on paper forms at the Suco (village) and then manually aggregated, once again on paper forms, at the sub-districts administrations are eventually digitized at the District level. Unreliable electricity and Internet supplies are problem for sustaining continuity of the IT systems. Working language are Parotugese and the Tetun; however, a larger portion of the population (> 50% illiteracy) do not speak, read, or write Portuguese. Even at the grassroots, English is easier to communicate.
Timorese along the Dili beaches
Timor-Leste is a new country with systems evolving at a minimal pace. Developing infrastructure such as roads, airports, and maritime ports are at the tip of the iceberg. Economy heavily relies on oil. Approximately 70% of the households dependent on farming. The country is mostly effected by flash floods and droughts. Violence in the homes and public health are other frequent issues the society faces. Tsunamis and Cyclones are seldom events but can be destructive, given their exposure.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Femtocells (MicroBTS) in support of Emergency Communications

I raised a question with several on-line interest groups: Disaster Management India and Researchers and Disaster Management Professionals and Research. It was intended to understand the real value of the Femtocell (also referred to as Picocell or Microcell) technology in emergency communications. Has there been a significant uptake of the Femtocell technology in emergency communications?

The technology has been around for about ten years. It was developed for commercial wireless telecom carriers to extend their coverage in locations where construction of a full size mobile tower is not warranted or economically justifiable. They are low power, short range (< 100m), and serve between 1-5 simultaneous connections. Ones made for small business or farm use can control up to about 100 users. However, they typically aren't big enough as currently sold to support a major emergency operation [1].

A small deployment, in a disaster affected area, could serve the public in small batches allowing them to reach their loved one. The Federal Communication Commission of USA has discussed the use of Femtocells as a Public Safety Tech. US telcom operator AT&T supports some mini systems that they use for their own emergency deployments and also offer to emergency management teams. The suitcase size,  bigger than Femtocells, AT&T solutions can support 500-1500 users simultaneously. Depending on the bandwidth available they do a decent job, at least with voice.

Image from EMF Explained Series:
Femtocells are Micro Base Transceiver System (Micro BTS). The mobile phone connects to a small local Femtocell device about the size of your WiFi modem as if it would to a regular GSM/WCDMA cellular tower. That device then provides voice and data to your cell phone where it otherwise wouldn't be able to pick up a signal out of the air. Cost of the device is under $100. David Kebo Houngninou explains the technicalities and architecture of setting up a cost-effective Femtocell access point.

Pasquale Pace and Valeria Loscri published on the architecture of OpenBTS as another step forward towards establishing cost-effective Micro BTS solutions. Range Networks has primarily customized the openBTS platform for a Network in a box kind of offering. They have a handful of implementations in various parts of the world: Antarctica, Indonesia, and Zambia. Folks at Daes and Orangee have discussed their practical experience of implementing a OpenBTS-enabled Microcell.

Extreme arid terrain:
In the wake of a disaster, like an earthquake that may take out the towers and cables, it may take the telcos, at least, 48 hours to restore those BTS. The earthquake may cause landslides that may block the roads for Cells on Wheels  (COWs) to reach the cellular dark area. Some areas can be unmotorable in  terrain with high mountains, deep valleys, rocky ground, and swampy lands. A Mobile Emergency Operation Centre (MEOC), similar to the DUNE2014 project with LTE broadband capable of transmitting video data, can be setup at a distance. Then the MEOC can extend the LTE internet connection to serve the Public at a distant location by linking them to a Femtocell.

Of cause there are legalities with frequency reuse by an unlicensed service provider. There must be roaming agreements between providers to use the same frequencies in the same area; i.e. multi-carrier compatibility to allow for a femtocell to communicate with handsets from different carriers. It doesn't affect or matter who's at the other end of the line. Government agencies have the authority to overpower those licensing barriers. A Micro BTS setup by a Government emergency service can certainly override those licensing issues. Another option is to offer a set of emergency frequency bands that any authorized service operator can use to operationalize a Micro BTS in the time of an emergency.

The back-haul can simply be a broadband (internet) link to pipe the cellular signal. For example, a VSAT connection can serve as back-haul in a cellular dark area caused by a disaster . However, one must be cautious of the latency that comes along with satellites back-haul. Moreover, it has to have some form of authentication to interface and establish routing of the call in both directions. Establishing a satellite link in between would likely fail because of latency and technical routing problems. Mobile phones require specific performance characteristics that are not one size fits all that can be accommodated by one system.

While Femtocells have certain challenges with operationalizing that are mainly due to policy and regulatory issues, it still is a promising technology for serving the gaps of filling the dark cellular coverage holes in support of crisis response and management.


My gratitude to the following people (listed in alphabetical order) for their contribution to the discussion that resulted in this blog

[1] Disaster Researchers and Disaster Management Professionals, LinkedIn Group. "Femtocells, who uses them?", consulted on the web:

[2] Disaster Management India, LinkedIn group. "Femtocells, who uses them?", consulted on the web:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Embarking on a study of ICT use in Indian Emergency Communications

Image is from DownToEarth:
2014 has been a busy year for Indian Emergency Managers. The Uttarakhan massive landslide, Jamu-n-Kashmir floods, Mumbai Stampede, GAIL gas pipeline explosion, Cyclone Hudhud are few of the many disasters they faced this year. Communications failed during these major crises. The Citizens and the Crisis Managers were disconnected without any telecommunications. Responders had no way of contacting remote Taluks and Hamlets to assess their situation. Local Officials couldn't contact State of Central Government to share their distress.

Realizing the shortcomings in the robustness of telecommunications in serving crises the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) of the Government of India and the International of Telecommunication Union are committed to intervene. I am honoured to be granted the opportunity to lead the study in determining the gaps and then recommending best-practices that can be leveraged in improving the Indian emergency communications.

The objectives are:
  1. Evaluate the current situation of ICT use in Emergency Telecommunications; specifically in the preparedness and response components of a Disaster Management cycle.
  2. Suggest optimal use of satellite and terrestrial systems to developed redundant stream-less communications by first assessing available ICT resources and processes to effectively meet the challenges.
  3. Create ecosystems where investments made for deploying telecommunications infrastructures for economic development are also used for disaster response for public safety.
  4. Challenges to bring in coordinated approach from different government departments, Service providers, private sector, intergovernmental organizations for effectiveness and quick response.
  5. Recommend any areas that require capacity building, systems development, and procedures for resilience. Thereafter, provide best practices that would support those recommendations.
A primary activity is a mission to India. The meetings in New Delhi are scheduled from December 11th to December 18th and in Bangalore (State of Karanataka) from 19th to the 22nd December, 2014. Interviewees are planned with Resource Persons affiliated Community-based Organizations, United Nations Agencies, Private Entities, Special Interest Groups, and Government Organizations. The mission findings will be recorded in mission report.