The search for the right kind of mobile IT equipment to use in the world's most remote regions took the CIO of the World Wildlife Fund to a mountaintop in the Andes.
In May of 2001, a team of experienced field biologists including staff from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) conducted an inventory of wildlife in the Dzanga-Sangha Dense Forest Special Reserve in the south-western Central African Republic (CAR). Working deep inside the jungle, often at night, the researchers analysed the threats and opportunities facing one of the world's few remaining undisturbed lowland tropical forests, which spans five countries in the heart of Africa. The reserve is home to one of the continent's largest intact forest elephant populations, western lowland gorillas, 16 of the country's 20 primate species, hundreds of bird species and thousands of plant species.
WWF senior communications officer Lee Poston joined the expedition to document the team's findings for publication on WWF's Web site (www.worldwildlife.org). Poston transmitted his daily notes via a rented satellite terminal and phone. The rented satellite gear was capable of transmitting at 9600bps and was recharged with a 13.8-watt solar charger. Setting up the satellite terminal and getting a strong signal to the satellite above was not a problem. Small text messages and Word attachments transmitted successfully within seconds. However, the equipment was inadequate for sending photographs that could graphically communicate what was being accomplished by the team on the ground. Lee spent up to 25 minutes trying to send multiple photographs and was successful on only two occasions.
Just before the team was scheduled to leave CAR, a violent coup broke out in the capital city, Bangui, about 300 miles away. Rebel and ex-military groups attacked military posts and the presidential palace with AK-47 machine guns, mortars and grenades. The borders and airport were closed, and dozens of people died. Many victims were left in the streets because residents were too afraid to pick up their dead relatives. The WWF team used the satellite phone to assure colleagues that they were safe and devise an elaborate plan to escape the troubled country. They left at 3am in an SUV, crossed the river via a boat into Cameroon and finally took a small plane to a safe haven in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde.
Shortly after I joined WWF, Lee and I met to discuss the trip and ongoing satellite technology challenges for the World Wildlife Fund. The organisation's needs were simple - the staff needed a lightweight mobile satellite terminal capable of transmitting high-speed data for access to WWF systems at US headquarters in Washington, DC, along with voice capability and satellite coverage for more than 95 per cent of the globe. I soon learned that WWF leased all of its satellite phones and equipment, but the leased equipment had limited data capabilities for sending pictures, and accessing WWF systems was very expensive. After researching other rental options, I found that rental prices were moderate, but usage fees were exorbitant and usually had high minimum-usage time commitments associated with each short-term lease contract. I then researched the equipment available for sale by vendors and discovered that mobile satellite technology had evolved during the past several years to produce effective, lightweight portable data and voice devices capable of handling the needs of the ultimate remote traveller.
Next Stop, the Andes
Once I selected a product and network vendor, it was time to test-drive the unit. I boarded a plane bound for Lima, Peru, with my compact loaner, a 2.7kg Nera WorldCommunicator GAN/M4 satellite terminal with a fold-out antenna that was capable of 64Kbps digital connections. In Lima, I spent some time at our field office testing the device via the Inmarsat satellite over Brazil. I set up the antenna at the WWF office and conducted several tests, including tracing routes to various US computers to determine connection stability. Additional tests included access to public Web sites and access to WWF applications and data via secure Citrix sessions. The terminal and service worked perfectly during the preliminary tests, and the Citrix session running on my laptop never dropped the connection through the satellite uplink.
I drove from Lima to a pristine mountain pass in the Andes called Ticlio. The son of the WWF finance and administration manager from the Lima office, a native Peruvian, escorted me on the three-hour trip, just in case I ran into trouble. The air at 16,000 feet was crisp. Light winds moved the cloud cover both below and above me. Nearby, children played soccer. As I unpacked the satellite gear, I noticed a Peruvian mother carrying her infant in a shoulder sling. It was humbling to see her moving so easily as I struggled to get accustomed to the altitude. I felt light-headed and nauseated. I even had difficulty reading the signal strength meter on the terminal as I attempted to find the right location for the satellite. I finally found the satellite and locked in my connection from the Nera terminal. Within minutes, I was accessing our corporate network in Washington, DC, and sending e-mails with sizeable data file attachments from the top of the Andes. The terminal proved reliable even with a 700ms per hop delay via the satellite connection. After the 45-minute test, I was satisfied that the equipment and service would be reliable and add value to the WWF mission. I packed up the gear, and we headed back down to Lima, passing a number of poor mountain villages and tapped-out mining communities along the way.
Several WWF staff members have since taken the equipment I purchased from Telenor into the field to support our environmental work. Recent trips to remote locations have shown that our team is able to utilise the terminal and GAN/M4 network for both reliable voice and data transmissions. WWF staff members have been successful in establishing reliable 64Kbps digital data connections and variable bandwidth voice connections from the field. WWF has also recently added satellite-based handheld phones to its satellite solutions for staff who simply need voice capabilities in a small device. The staff has successfully uploaded files to our Web team from remote locations like Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park and the Terai Arc, which includes 12 million remote acres spanning Nepal and parts of India. Some of the world's most endangered wild animals, including tigers, rhinos and elephants, roam the Terai Arc. WWF and its partners are attempting to restore and reconnect 11 national parks in Nepal and India to create one continuous landscape and corridor that will allow such wildlife to flourish. Our team of environmental professionals are now adequately equipped to meet the diverse needs of voice and data communications from nearly any location on the planet.
Gregory Smith is vice president and CIO of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, DC
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