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 Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Pakistan is flooding. People are dying and being displaced. Food aid distribution is lagging.
But can they make phone calls?

An unusual question, perhaps. But a crucial one, nonetheless.

You see, the United Nations has a division -- the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) -- that is responsible for rushing into disaster zones to help resurrect vital telecom infrastructure that has been destroyed. Why is that important?

We're not talking about allowing people to engage in idle gossip at steep monthly rates.

We're talking about cellphone towers losing electricity or falling into crevices, about shifting tectonic plates rupturing fixed-line phone service, about rooftop antennas in crowded urban areas collapsing into rubble, about flood waters shutting down power generators to various parts of a mobile network.

Without any of this, government agencies can't distribute all the aid your donations have provided, can't co-ordinate with humanitarian agencies to figure out where the need for medical services is the greatest and can't, in short, respond to the crisis properly.

For citizens, it's even more frightening. During the Haiti earthquake, as with many disasters, family members didn't know whether their loved ones were alive. People were texting SOS messages from beneath the rubble -- and having their text messages join a long queue created by the strained wireless networks (a data backlog situation that also happened, if you recall, when Sidney Crosby scored his momentous goal for Team Canada). That's why there's other groups, as well, such as Télécoms Sans Frontières.

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