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Telecoms Expert Keeps The Lines Open In Madagascar

Communications are an essential part of any humanitarian aid operation, but keeping the lines open can be a tough job, says telecoms specialist Mark Phillips. He and his team have recently finished setting up radio repeaters around drought-plagued Madagascar, a challenging task even under the best of conditions.

ANTANANARIVO—Mark Phillips, a specialist with WFP's FITTEST emergency telecoms team, has spent the last few weeks traipsing around Madagascar with more than 80 kg of equipment making sure that the numerous humanitarian operations afoot around the country are able to communicate with each other.

That consists of setting up a network of repeaters, which are devices that receive a signal and retransmit it at a higher power so that it can cover a longer distance.

A difficult job under the best of conditions, it was made even harder by a bout of political tension just prior to Phillips' arrival.

wfp staff member setting up a radio system in Madagascar

A big job

“Linking repeaters enables radio-users to reach eachother at longer and longer distances” says Phillips. “If an emergency announcement needs to be made, for example, all stations can receive it at once. There is no need to re-broadcast it on different channels which makes it much more efficient.”

That’s important in a disaster-prone country like Madagascar, where droughts and cyclones frequently spark hunger crises. Even in a good year, WFP feeds some 1.3 million people in Madagascar as part of school meals programmes for children or food-for-work schemes for adults.

“The job we are doing is for all of the UN agencies because we are using the same network,” says IT Officer Nono Kukimunu, who’s worked with Philips to set up the new repeaters. “We use the same frequencies and the same equipment. This is a project that’s going to help everyone.”

In addition to setting up the repeaters themselves, Phillips and his team have also trained local personnel with the skills necessary to maintain the network and add new repeaters as they become necessary.

Risky business

He added that setting up repeaters at strategic points around the country could be dangerous business, particularly in the midst of political unrest. In November, there was an attempted coup in Madagascar.

“We are always going out to repeater sites, going to local shops for supplies and driving around testing coverage,” he said. “By default, we are outside and in an exposed environment for much of the day. That can sometimes be risky.”