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Meet Telecoms Sans Frontieres, Using Tech for Disaster Relief

When earthquake, war, or pandemic strikes, the Telecoms San Frontieres team springs into action. And within 24 hours, their hotspot hubs are offering Internet connections to relief workers and governments in the heart of any disaster. Through satellite uplinks, they provide free three-minute calls for people desperate to reach family to let them know they've survived.

Telecoms San Frontieres, or Telecommunications Without Borders, is a relief organization based in southern France with more than a decade of experience in setting up emergency communications facilities in war or disaster zones. The group is funded by the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, as well as corporate partners including AT&T and Immarsat. Their founders, Monique Lanne-Petit and Jean-Francois Cazenave were in Washington this week, meeting with White House and FCC staff members as they seek to beef up relations with the United States.

Paul Margie, a partner at the Wiltshire & Grannis law firm, was recently named the group's U.S. representative. His chief mission is to develop closer ties with emergency responders in the United States to coordinate disaster relief. The TSF team met Monday witih FCC Public Safety Bureau Chief Rear Admiral (ret.) James A. Barnett Jr..

Typically, food, water and medicine top the list of priorities to help victims of disaster and war. But what Lanne-Petit and Cazenave said they found during wars in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, as well as during the Asian tsunami in 2004, was that displaced people first asked to make a phone call. In each of those regions, scores of people carried phone numbers of relatives written on scraps of papers and tucked into their shoes for safekeeping.

"To these people, the phone numbers they kept were more valuable than anything else they could hold," Lanne-Petit said. "The telephone is not just a luxury, it's an absolute essential for saving lives."

The TSF founders brought a satellite phone with them to those war and disaster zones and gave victims free phone calls. Victims waited on line for as long as two days to contact relatives to ask for help, let them know they were alive and inform them of others who didn't survive. And for relief workers, a simple uplink to a satellite feed or connection to local broadband networks was crucial to organizing rescue efforts and communicating with groups outside the disaster zones.

In photo: Front row, from left: Monique Lanne-Petit and Jean-Francois Cazenave
Back row, right: Paul Margie

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 15, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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