Vodafone Instant Network: Providing connectivity for refugees in an emergency environment

When thousands of refugees began arriving on European shores in 2015, the Vodafone Foundation deployed its Instant Network project to meet the new arrival’s urgent need for connectivity.

The Vodafone Instant Network project deploys equipment and staff into humanitarian situations to provide free connectivity for those affected by crisis.

“These refugees were very tech savvy, they had smart phones, they were very comfortable with the use of technology” Justin Waller, Vodafone Foundation

The Instant Network itself is an easily deployable kit consisting of an antenna, a foldable mast, an industrial computer and a base transceiver station, all powered by a portable generator that is capable of providing instant connectivity for a small geographical areas. Although designed primarily for sudden onset emergencies like typhoons or earthquakes, the Instant Network had previously been deployed to South Sudan to support refugees living in camps prior to the Greece deployment.

These refugees were very tech savvy, they had smart phones, they were very comfortable with the use of technology

The importance of connectivity to refugees arriving in Greece has been apparent to everyone working on the crisis. The profile, especially of those arriving from Syria currently 48% was of young (under 35), educated (half have university degrees), skilled and technologically savvy. “Unlike some refugee situations, many of these refugees were very tech savvy, they had smart phones, they were very comfortable with the use of technology,” says Justin Waller of Vodafone Foundation, who was part of the Instant Network project in Greece. Aid workers quickly found that the among the first question the new arrivals asked was not where they could find food and shelter, but how to charge their phones and access Wi-Fi.

“Refugees were using their phones to access information about the journey – researching routes, how to buy a ferry ticket or where to go next.”

Vodafone staff member helps newly arrived refugees in Skala, Greece use the Instant Charge service) – it’s not a great picture but at this stage it’ll do. Credit: Vodafone Foundation

To help meet this need, UNHCR asked Vodafone Instant Network team to deploy in November 2015. Justin Waller was among the team that travelled to Greece, where they identified places where refugees gathered – most often registration points – which would be suitable for the Instant Network. Working under UNHCR leadership and alongside other partners such as Nethope and several volunteer groups, they assessed several sites in Greece where the need was greatest. Four sites were selected on the basis they were registration and/or arrival sites, and thus locations where incoming refugees congregated and where demand for services was greatest.

From the start it was clear that the refugees would be best served by providing Wi-Fi rather than just traditional mobile Network based, voice and connectivity service as the mobile network was intact and operational in all areas and many refugees primarily use web based services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Viber to stay in touch with others. They were also able to deploy a new service, the Instant Charge facility, designed to allow up to 60 phones to be charged simultaneously. Refugees were also using their phones to access information about the journey – researching routes, how to buy a ferry ticket or where to go next.

The deployment was desperately needed, says Waller. “When we got to Moria, a registration area in Lesvos, there were thousands of people clamouring to charge their phones. You could see them using Skype and WhatsApp to talk to families back home and it was so obvious that people needed that, and to stay in contact. They were also using it to access information about the journey – researching routes, how to buy a ferry ticket or where to go next. The connectivity side facilitated all of that.”

The Vodafone Foundation Instant Charge tool was piloted for the first time during the Greece response in 2015. Each box allows up to 20 phones to charge at one time. Photo credit: Vodafone Foundation.

There was also high demand for charging services. The Instant Charge tool allows for multiple charging of up to 60 phones per unit simultaneously, removing the need for adaptors or for refugees to supply their own chargers. In Greece, the team found that 80-85% of phones were android models using micro USBs. They also found it was necessary to split the unit up and offer three charging points with a capacity of 20 each. “People stuck by their phones,” says Waller. “They know how important their phones are – they are quite willing to sit there and watch them charge.” The team left five units in Greece and are in the process of building more.

For Waller, a key difference with other disasters is that many people were using web based platforms such as Skype, Viber and Whatsapp rather than just the traditional voice or SMS services, leading to a demand for Wi FI as well as the more basic mobile connectivity the team had provided in other countries. The importance of these new platforms was highlighted when the Greek authorities started requiring refugees to apply for the necessary permissions for onward travel via Skype. To meet this need, the team used commercial Wi Fi equipment. A further challenge was that use of Wi Fi often incorporated high bandwidth tasks like video. Over the six months of deployment, Instant Networks carried 12,744,00 MB of data, equivalent to 1.7 billion WhatsApp messages.

Providing Wi-Fi, while desperately needed by the refugees, also created additional challenges, especially. People started to watch YouTube and try to download content. This was not necessarily trivial: many were trying to keep up with news from home and, as Waller says, there can be huge value in psychosocial terms for people in watching entertainment. “We had to strike a balance,” he says. “We had to restrict torrents and access to some kinds of content, obviously. But we managed it.”

“What is needed in the longer term is cheaper commercial services and power for refugee hosting locations.”

A key issue in Greece, says Waller, is the need for longer term sustainable forms of service provision that can pick up where projects like Instant Network – designed to fill gaps in service in a major crisis until normal services are resumed – need to scale down. Instant Network, for example, was running on an expensive satellite backhaul. “What is needed in the longer term – in this crisis and others – is cheaper commercial services and power for these locations,” says Waller. The needs of refugees, especially those caught in limbo between displacement and permanent resettlement or return, are very different to those of people in a crisis like an earthquake. “In a disaster, people want to make a call or send an SMS just to say they’re alive. But here we had people who needed to stay in constant contact with their families, and access online tools to secure their basic rights as well as source information. These are often high bandwidth tasks, not like a simple phone call.”

As he points out, Wi Fi is easy to provide and cheap, and necessary – especially in locations where refugees cannot access or afford local data plans or only have access to feature phone handsets. But Wi FI and longer term connectivity services are increasingly a matter for local MNOs, and those working with the refugees rather than a disaster response model.

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