Tag Archives: GSM

‘Telecommunications Targeted During War’

PalTelGigaOm has written an article about the targeting of telecommunication systems in Gaza.  PalTel, the local provider, has lost 90% of it’s infrastructure.  From the article:

Israel’s strikes into Gaza continue apace, and news stories are pointing out that the conflict is being fought online as well — Twitter, YouTube and hacking web sites are playing a role, as ways to get information out of the country and dispense propaganda. There’s no need to drop pamphlets when you can post video of soldiers destroying a government building on YouTube or send threatening texts. The delivery mechanism is new, but propaganda isn’t.

Neither are the efforts to take out the delivery mechanism and means of communications. However, with Hamas using the same technology as citizens, the scope of such destruction is much wider. On Sunday, Palestinian mobile operator Paltel said that 90 percent of its infrastrucutre in Gaza was down, potentially cutting off communications via cell phone. Warning that the Gaza strip could be “disconnected from the outside world,” Paltel issued a statement that read…

Read on…

‘GPS receiver in every SIM card’

This could be a game changer.  A German company has developed a SIM card with an integrated A-GPS receiver.  Navigadget has the story:

German smartcard maker Sagem Orga just announced a partnership with BlueSky Positioning to integrate A-GPS receiver on regular SIM cards.

The proprietary new approach incorporates a highly accurate GPS receiver and an antenna into the SIM card, enabling network providers to deploy both legally-mandated and commercial applications for all mobile phones, with no need for software or hardware changes. To make positioning even more accurate and user friendly, the A-GPS SIM uses assisted GPS data.

Read on…

Telecommunications update from Tbilisi

A friend of mine who is currently in Tbilisi was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.  To summarize:

  • The mobile phone networks are working fine in Tbilisi.
  • Magticom is the preferred network provider as it has the best coverage.
  • No news on how the networks are functioning in South Ossetia.
  • My friend is currently using an “impressively fast” landline for INTERNET that is faster than the WiFi back home.  Skype, Outlook, etc. all work fine.  Skype video is exceptionally good.
  • Things are returning to normal in Tbilisi and seem to be getting back to the way they were before the conflict.

I didn’t want to bother with asking too many questions straight out of the gate as time spent answering questions means time away from the real work.  I’ll see if I can collect some more info once things slow down a bit.

So, if you are headed to Tbilisi it looks like you are not going to have too much trouble connecting.

(Please note that Skype was mentioned.  It is the unheralded champion of the humanitarian community and has become one of the most important pieces of humanitarian kit out there today.)

“It still very difficult to get a call anywhere around the country right now.” – NPR

NPR’s Ivan Watson reports that Russian planes are continually bombing cell phone towers in an effort to knock out telecommunications networks and what’s left of the GSM network in the country only works sporadically.  Also, he reports that the INTERNET in Georgia has been compromised by a cyberattack.  This was reported earlier in the day by WIRED’s Danger Room. [Click here to listen to the NPR audio file.]

With an already limited GSM network in South Ossetia and Abkhazia now compromised by bomb attacks it seems that folks heading into Georgia have very little option other than Thuraya and Iridium satellite phones.  While networks may work from time to time I am not sure anyone is going to want to rely on them as their only source of communication.  With the INTERNET also under assault aid teams will also be relying on Inmarsat’s BGAN and the new ThurayaIP.

3G woefully inadequate in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Given that now more than ever aid organizations are relying on GPRS and 3G data cards to stay connected it is a bit disconcerting to see that both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have limited network coverage.  As I mentioned before the GSM network coverage is lacking in South Ossetia.  Now that the Russian Navy is steaming toward the coast of Abkhazia I should mention that it looks like GSM coverage is also poor in that region.  With the overall picture looking grim for connectivity in the contested areas I sure hope that Georgia permits free use of satellite communications and that US export and Georgian import restrictions are minimal.

This is a fairly common problem that most aid agencies face.  Telecommunications networks in the areas where aid agencies operate are often underdeveloped.  Most likely this is because carriers are concerned about placing their gear in unstable regions where it could be easily lost or destroyed in the event of conflict.  (Although one has to has to wonder if there are not sometimes other less savory reasons for not extending a network.)  Thankfully, it looks like agencies are currently conducting their operations in more stable areas like those around Tblisi.

If anyone has any updates on this issue please be sure to comment.

Limited GSM coverage in South Ossetia?

GSM World

GSM World

After a little digging over at GSM World I came up with a coverage map for Geocell which maintains, I am guessing, Georgia’s largest GSM network.  Compare that map to the BBC’s map of South Ossetia below and it looks to me like it is Thuraya time.



It appears that there is almost no coverage to the northwest of Tskhinvali.  Not exactly good news for organizations moving into the area to provide assistance.  If anyone has info regarding this issue I’d like to post an update as soon as possible.

OpenMoko FreeRunner – a good thing waiting to happen

Not long ago I attended O’Reilly’s FooCamp and had the opportunity to fiddle with OpenMoko’s FreeRunner.  A dozen of these nifty little gems littered a table in the MAKE workspace.  I was rushing between events but I managed to squeeze in a few minutes of playtime.

While the FreeRunner has taken some hits for various shortcomings I have to say I was fairly impressed after only a few minutes of messing with it.  It has good weight and feel and I had no problem navigating through the screens.  While I did not have time to make a call I noticed that a number of participants had managed to do so.

I would love to see the FreeRunner develop into a viable smartphone alternative, much the same way Ubuntu has as an OS, but for right now I think it is pretty much a geek only tool.  For more info on this device check out Sam Churchill’s write up over at dailywireless.org.  Today Gizmodo announced that OpenMoko is releasing the chip schematics so that you can build your own.

Wall Street Journal: “Start-Up May Aid Telecoms’ Reach”

Here is something that I do believe will succeed.  VNL has created a solar powered portable GSM network for rural communities in India.  The components are inexpensive to manufacture, easy to operate and portable.  Here’s an excerpt for a Wall Street Journal – Asia article about this new technology:

“We started with a clean sheet of paper, and told ourselves that we needed to design technology perfectly suited for the rural environment,” says VNL Chief Executive Anil Raj, a former executive at Ericsson.

The tower is designed to make it easy for people with little professional training to install. The equipment comes with a pictorial instruction manual similar to those for Ikea’s do-it-yourself furniture. It has just one button, used to turn it on.

Read on…

GSM, BGAN, etc, etc

Ok, strike me with lightening if I am wrong but this one just smacks of ‘been there, done that’.  The mobile news sites have been lighting up with this story.  WISECOM, a group that I have never heard of (which doesn’t mean a thing) has come out with a GSM/BGAN/DVB-RCS/etc system that can connect everyone to everything.  In principal it is a great idea but when I hit the WISECOM site I read this:

The WISECOM project is co-funded by the European Commission 1 . It studies, develops, and validates by live trials candidate rapidly deployable lightweight communications infrastructures for emergency conditions (after a natural or industrial hazard).

The system integrates terrestrial mobile radio networks – comprising GSM, UMTS, WiFi, and optionally WiMax and TETRA – over satellite, using Inmarsat BGAN and DVB-RCS systems. WISECOM uses lightweight and rapidly deployable technologies, and incorporates location-based services. The infrastructure is intended to cover immediate needs in the first hours and days after a disaster event, as well as medium to longer term needs, during the recovery and rebuilding phase following an emergency.

WISECOM is counting on active participation by medical and rescue organizations to ensure the usefulness of the developed solution.

Yeah, read that last line again. The bit about WISECOM “counting on” organizations to “ensure the usefulness of the developed solution” makes me real nervous.  Now, click over to the demonstration photos which can be found here.  No BGAN, no antennas, and no GSM/BGAN/DVB-RCS/etc thingamajiggy.  Just a lot of people with PDA’s (really!? PDA’s!?) and a couple laptops all standing around looking kind of confused.  Here is a sample photo from the drill:

(Doesn’t really inspire confidence now does it?)

There is a lot of German and I don’t speak German so I am sure all that writing is telling me that the unit is there but I just can’t see it.  And I am sure that all the folks are really good at what they do.  It is just that I have a problem with the fact that 1) the unit only exists because someone is telling me it exists (I would think there would be at least one photo) and 2) they are relying on us to make it work right.  I can tell you they are a long way from rolling it out if they are waiting on the aid community to make it work right.  Hopefully all the German firefighters that were hustling around at the demo can help them to make it right so that someday soon we’ll see something that looks like this:

Oh, wait I didn’t see anything there either.  I did see a BGAN and a Linksys WRT54GL wireless router but I didn’t see much more than that.  Maybe that was the kit.  Hmmm…

Sorry to be snarky but I think you get my point.  The production cost for that video alone probably could have fed a village and the cost to build that invisible German thingy above probably could have fed a whole city.  I sure as hell hope they save a lot of lives with those things.

Ethiopia before mobile phones

Photo by filippo jean

In 2001 I was offered and assignment in Ethiopia to work with Doctors Without Borders building a TB clinic.  I was sent to one of the hottest places on earth – the Danakil Desert in the Rift Valley of north-eastern Ethiopia.  The region is home to the Afar who are an extremely tough nomadic tribe.  Rumor has it that back when the central government in Addis Ababa tried to disarm the tribes they didn’t even bother asking the Afar for their weapons.  Although tough they were also incredibly hospitable and shortly after I arrived some of the staff had me over for goat and bread stew slow roasted with mild chilies.  Good stuff.

Photo by Alvise Forcellini

Shortly after I arrived I was redirected to a meningitis epidemic that had flared up in northern Ethiopia in the districts of North and South Wollo.  Before long we were vaccinating like mad (I think at one point we covered 6,000 people in a day between all of our sites) and we traveled far and wide from the lowlands east of Woldiya to the mountains outside of Kombolcha.  We beat the hell out of our vehicles getting into some of the most remote regions imaginable.  I remember one day spending what must have been a couple of hours driving straight uphill to get to one site.  We literally stared at blue sky for over an hour as fragrant jasmine brushed against the side of the Landcruiser.


This was in 2001 and back then there was no mobile network, no VHF or HF radios, no real form of telecommunications other than landlines in the major cities where we were working.  Since we spent most of our time in the smaller towns and remote villages our communications relied on two things: paper and pencil.  We would literally have to write a message on a piece of paper, send a driver out onto the road often in the pouring rain and then wait for his return with a written response several hours later.  The ban on telecommunications was a hold over from the Mengistu era and it made our work that much more difficult.

At one point I was forced to rent two camels for a couple of days to transport vaccine and equipment into a remote mountain village.  We drove as far as we could go and then met up with the handler and his two camels that were outfitted with saddles.  After loading the equipment the camels took off up the mountain and we set out after them.  After about an hour of walking we reached the village and met with the local health officer.  Upon arriving in the village it became clear that the villagers had either gotten the time or date wrong or they just didn’t think we were coming.  That is when I was introduced to a method that far surpassed mobile phones, bullhorns, etc in efficiency.

After a brief exchange with the health officer he turned to a group of men standing nearby and immediately a man emerged from the crowd and stepped to the edge of the ridge we were standing on.  He began to yell across to the next ridge where a collection of huts stood.  He wasn’t really yelling rather he was calling in a clear and melodic voice.  The distance was quite far but the reply was still audible.  A few seconds later what sounded like the exact same message could be heard making it’s way daisy-chain fashion up the hillside, from ridge line to ridge line, and then it stopped.

It only took 15-20 minutes before we noticed groups of people making their way down the mountainside.  In another 30 minutes our first vaccination patients began arriving in the compound and we immediately set to work.  The time it took to transmit the message up the hillside was a matter of minutes.  It was quick, easy and we quickly realized that their relay system had been in place for quite some time.  We pulled out of that village the next after vaccinating most of the people from the surrounding region.

I had seen this method of communication before when I was working in the Afar region.  It is said that a message could be sent across that region in much less time than it would take to hop in a car and deliver the message yourself.  While I know that people have been communicating like this for a very long time I still need to force myself sometimes to to step back from all the gizmos and gadgets and appreciate the simplicity of these systems.  In the rush to save the world with high technology I think we sometimes forget that it is still one person with good technique, a strong voice and a clear message that ends up saving the most lives.