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Emergency telecommunications

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OVERVIEW


CHALLENGES IN EMERGENCY TELECOMS


The world's population is growing. According to the UN's World Population Prospects report, the world's population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons over the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 9.7 billion in 2050 [1]​ .

The world's cities are expanding. In 2018, just over half (or 55%) of the world's population was estimated to be living in urban areas or cities, a proportion that will rise to two-thirds (68%) by 2050, according to the UN's “Population Division" report 2017.

There is evidence to suggest that climate change and global warming are increasing the severity of extreme weather events, although not necessarily their frequency [2]. Naturally occurring disasters (including earthquakes and tsunamis) can make populations in some areas more vulnerable. The United Nations warns that 280 million people could be displaced due to rising sea-levels if global temperatures rise to 2o C above pre-industrial levels [3], mindful that around a quarter of the people of Small Island Developing States live five metres or less above sea level 4 [4].

In the wake of  disasters, reliable communication links are urgently needed to coordinate relief efforts and disseminate early warnings and alerts to communities at risk. ITU has developed several studies on the use of terrestrial systems, land mobile, amateur radio, broadband and International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) for emergency communications. Amateur radio stations, which are distributed throughout the world in both populated and sparsely populated areas, have the ability to provide voice, text, image and data communications using different frequencies allocated through the radio frequency spectrum. This allows trained radio operators to reconfigure networks to meet the specific needs of an emergency. 

Terrestrial communication and/or power networks are often disrupted or destroyed by severe weather events (e.g. through intense floods, severe hurricanes, intense rainy seasons, etc.). Satellite and other non-ground-based networks can help provide communication services to assist in disaster response and relief efforts. 

Satellite networks are more resilient as they operate mainly outside the atmosphere and can be used to establish communication links with remote areas. These satellite systems rely on widespread and recognized standards, so equipment is readily available and interoperability and reliability are ensured. Mobile-satellite service (MSS) and fixed-satellite service (FSS) systems are often ideally suited to support disaster response and relief efforts, due to their wide coverage areas. 

Another emerging technology that looks promising for emergency communications is High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS). According to a new Resolution passed at the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC‑19), held in in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt from 28 October to 22 November 2019, “current technologies can be used to deliver broadband applications by HAPS, which can provide broadband connectivity and disaster-recovery communications with minimal ground network infrastructure" [5]​. These platforms (e.g. drones or balloons), located at an altitude between 20 to 50 km, can be used to provide both fixed and broadband connectivity and can be rapidly deployed in the areas affected by disasters. One balloon-based high-altitude system already proved its utility for restoring mobile communications in Puerto Rico and Peru after disasters in 2017 and 2019, respectively.  

Short-wave broadcasting also can be useful to provide services to population in disaster and post-disaster situations when local and even regional communication and information networks are destroyed or overloaded and the population affected by the disaster suffers from an information blackout. The role of shortwave broadcasting as "crisis radio" was again identified during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The International Radio for Disaster Relief (IRDR) project, mentioned in Recommendation ITU-R BS.2107, is to offer to the world community a global platform for a terrestrial wireless radio service to audiences.

Investments in the mitigation and preparedness phases as well as in partnerships for emergency telecommunications represent long-term investments for countries, not just an immediate response to short-term crisis. Disaster planning and preparedness can encourage local municipalities to determine their ICT required capabilities for their long-term needs and long-term future, not just for the immediate response to any crisis event.


ITU’S WORK ON EMERGENCY TELECOMS


ITU supports its Member States in the development of National Emergency Telecommunications Plans (NETPs), assisting national authorities and policy-makers in ensuring the continued use of ICT networks and services in all phases of disaster management. Accord​ing to Target 3.5 of the ITU Strategic Plan 2020-2023: "By 2023, all countries should have a National Emergency Telecommunication Plan as part of their national and local disaster risk reduction strategies".

NETPs are an essential element to articulate a national strategy and procedures to allow information sharing across all levels of government, within communities, and between public and private organizations to become more resilient to disasters. The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2018 (PP-18), held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from 29 October to 16 November 2018, approved, among others, a revised resolution supporting Small Island Developing States and Landlocked Developing Countries [6]. Support to develop NETPs has been provided to four Pacific Islands (Vanuatu, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) and to two countries in the Americas Region (Guatemala and Bolivia).  

ITU has also hosted national and regional workshops and forums on the use of ICTs for disaster management, including the Global Forum on Emergency Telecommunications (GET). These events provide an opportunity for stakeholders from the public and private sectors, including UN and non-governmental entities, to debate and address relevant issues, needs and new opportunities on using ICTs in the framework of disaster management and risk reduction.

In September 2019, at ITU Telecom World 2019, ITU joined the Crisis Connectivity Charter (CCC) to make satellite-based communications more readily available to humanitarians and affected communities when disasters strike. The Charter helps support increased coordination by prioritizing access to bandwidth for humanitarian purposes during disaster responses and by allocating pre-positioned satellite equipment and transmission capacity in high-risk countries.

ITU is also an active member of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), a global network of humanitarian, private sector and governmental organizations that work together in disasters to provide vital communications services. The ETC, in partnership with leading edge technology companies and local telecom providers, creates an environment for emergency response allowing humanitarian responders, communities and governments to have a seamless, resilient and principled communications.

ITU assists in fulfilling the objectives of the Tampere Convention, which was adopted on 18 June 1998 by the delegates of the 75 countries that attended the Intergovernmental Conference on Emergency Telecommunications (ICET-98) in Tampere, Finland.  The Convention was established to assist its Member States with responding to disasters by facilitating the swift approval and deployment of emergency telecommunication equipment.

ITU has a long and distinguished body of work on the spectrum harmonization and use of radiocommunication and satellite emergency telecommunication for disaster response and relief. The identification of common frequency ranges within which equipment could operate may ease interoperability and/or interworking, with mutual cooperation and consultation, especially in national, regional and cross-border emergency situations and disaster relief operations. ITU Study Groups work through their technical and operational studies, also providing use cases, on many different issues relating to emergency telecommunications. Relevant information on these studies can be found at here​

ITU standards offer guidance on network architectures able to contend with sudden losses of substantial volumes of network resources. They describe the network functionality required to make optimal use of the network resources still operational after a disaster. They offer techniques for the rapid repair of damaged ICT infrastructure, such as means to connect the surviving fibres of severed fibre-optic cables. ITU standards also provide for “movable and deployable ICT resource units" – emergency containers, vehicles or hand-held kits housing network resources and a power source – to provide temporary replacements for destroyed ICT infrastructure.

ITU is also supporting an ambitious project to equip submarine communications cables with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors to create a global real-time ocean observation network. This network would be capable of providing earthquake and tsunami warnings as well as data on ocean climate change and circulation. This project to equip cable repeaters with climate and hazard-monitoring sensors – creating 'Science Monitoring And Reliable Telecommunications (SMART) cables' – is led by the ITU/WMO/UNESCO-IOC Joint Task Force on SMART Cable Systems


 

[1] World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights and related materials are available  here​

[2] BBC Weather's Tomasz Schafernaker, quoted here

[3​] https://www.itv.com/news/2019-09-22/un-report-set-to-issue-stark-warning-on-climate-change-impact-on-oceans​/

[4] Source: United Nations, Secretary-General's remarks at the High-level Mid-term Review of the Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA Pathway), 27 September 2019, available here​

[5] RESOLUTION COM4/3 (WRC-19): Use of the frequency band 21.4-22 GHz by high-altitude platform stations in the fixed service in Region 2​

[6]​ RESOLUTION 30 (REV. DUBAI, 2018), Special measures for the least developed countries, small island developing states, landlocked developing countries and countries with economies in transition 

Last update: March 2020 ​