Making a connection: how Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network is a lifesaver in disaster zones
Oisin Walton, Instant Network Programme Manager since 2011, introduces Instant WIFI, the latest innovation his team of volunteers can offer in hostile environments around the globe
When disaster strikes, it is a natural reaction to want to connect with loved ones and seek help. A line of communication is critical for victims and rescue workers to receive and provide vital news, transfer money, and to start the process of rebuilding.
The inexorable march of technology is making it easier to communicate in hostile environments. Just a decade ago, only satellite or radio communication was available, and now mobile networks – including Vodafone – have transformed both disaster response and prevention, improving warnings, aid coordination, and the ability to let victims speak with or message friends and family and access the internet.
Since 2011, Vodafone Foundation’s* pioneering technology, Instant Network, has provided life-saving assistance in over 20 missions around the world, empowered tens of thousands of people, and enabled almost 3 million telephone calls.
Instant WIFI, its latest innovation in a growing portfolio – which includes a portable 3G network that packs into three 32-kilogram boxes for rapid deployment on commercial flights, and Instant Charge, a durable and portable outdoor mobile charger that can charge 48 devices simultaneously – was introduced at the International Disaster Response Expo at London Olympia in late November.
It allows up to 500 people to access the internet within an 80-metre radius. For a larger deployment, extra access points extend the capacity and the area of coverage to 1,500 users across 10,000m2.
“Being able to communicate via a mobile network is one of the most valuable pieces of aid today, level with food, but not quite up there with water, which is essential,” states Oisin Walton, who has been Instant Network’s Programme Manager since its inception in 2011.
He can list many stories that highlight how Instant Network’s kits have helped people in desperate situations. For instance, in February 2016 Nikki and Aaron Faulls, a newly married American couple, were on their honeymoon in Fiji when Cyclone Winston hit the island nation, killing 44. They survived by hiding in a shipping container. Being able to call their parents almost immediately was “the best wedding present”, the grateful bride said.
Oisin recalls how one Syrian refugee in Greece used Instant Network to seek asylum, and after appealing to eight countries was accepted by Latvia.
“There have been several memorable moments over the last seven years,” he continues. “One of the most special was our first mission to Kaikor, in northern Kenya, in 2012. In that drought-prone region, where the 15,000-strong community had previously existed without running water or reliable communications, we deployed Instant Network with Huawei and Safaricom, at the request of Kenya Red Cross.
“Before our mission, the nearest mobile network signal was several hours away. The moment our network was established and people started calling was very emotional for the team.”
Oisin says the Instant Network team is operated in an agile way, “like a small NGO [non-governmental organisation] within in big corporate” and focused on “connecting for good, combining technology, people, and money.”
He says a people-centric approach powers Instant Network’s pioneering tools. “All our innovations are based on need, and also we look at a holistic approach, looking at the conditions in which it will be deployed,” says Barcelona-based Mr Walton.
As an example, he cites the development of Instant Charge in 2015. “UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] asked for help, as one million refugees were entering Greece and Europe via Turkey on boats.
“We went to the island of Lesbos on an assessment trip with UNHCR. We saw the dinghies arrive, and the first thing the refugees would do was take out a plastic bag containing their phone and try to make a call to their families to say ‘I’ve made it’. However, in many cases, they would not have any battery left, which is how Instant Change came about.”
In just three weeks Justin Waller, Technology Manager at Instant Network, had designed a robust charging device that can power up 48 phones at once, in challenging conditions, and was immediately deployed in seven refugee camps in Greece.
Offering Instant WIFI was an obvious next step. “It can be very costly to use a smartphone in another country,” says Oisin. “So in addition to Instant Charge, we can now allow people to use their own phones to call home using Skype, WhatsApp, etc, for free.”
Instant Network is deployed with the help of 70 volunteers around the globe – all Vodafone employees, who are allowed to take up to a month, fully paid, to help with Instant Network missions. “Our youngest volunteer is 21, the oldest is 55, and the demand for places is amazing; in the summer we had over 120 applications for just 20 places,” says Oisin.
Every volunteer has to take part in a gruelling five-day programme, organised by former Special Air Service members, in Carmarthenshire. “They sleep in tents, in freezing temperatures, and have very little food – we push them to the limit,” explains Oisin.
Finally, Oisin is encouraged by tech advancements on the horizon that will make his team’s job easier. “Only a few years ago we were dealing with 2G, very slow internet, and now we are talking about smartphones, 5G, mobile money, so re-establishing telephone networks in a disaster is incredibly important.
“Technology is becoming cheaper, and smaller, and we are always trying to find the most portable and reliable technologies that provide the best services in the field. With the help of partners – governments, operators, NGOs – together we can help the biggest number of people, because that is the central aim of Instant Network, ultimately.”
Cost of Natural Disasters
United Nations research shows the following:
• $1.4 trillion (£1.1 trillion) – cost of damage caused by natural disasters between 2004 and 2014
• 1.7 billion – number of people impacted by natural disasters because of natural disasters in the decade from 2004 (700,000 people were killed)
• 335 – number of natural disasters in 2017
How Vodafone Foundation is Helping
Vodafone Foundation established Instant Network in 2011, and since then its team of volunteers has provided critical communications in disaster zones across the world. Here are some key statistics:
• 20+ – disaster situations where Instant Network has been deployed
• 2.845 million – number of calls made using Instant Network since 2011
• 2.2 billion – WhatsApp messages used through Instant Network
• 10,000 – range, in m2, of Instant WIFI at full capacity
• 1,500 – number of possible users of Instant WIFI at any one time