TSF gives up on Burma

26 Jun 2008

Another item for the You Saw This Coming A Mile Away files, only this one's not funny:

Members of Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) have left Burma after being blocked by the government from entering the Irrawaddy Delta to set up emergency telecoms equipment to help relief agencies communicate better.

It's a familiar tale by now. Unicef asked TSF to set up emergency telecoms gear shortly after the May 2 cyclone that killed over 133,000 people. It took the Burmese government a month just to approve the visas and, once TSF crews were in Rangoon, ignored requests for authorization to set up in the delta.

'We got no reply at all,' TSF spokesman Oisin Walton told BBC News. 'The frustration is that we were allowed into the country but not allowed to deploy.'

It's even more frustrating when considering how invaluable telecoms has become in emergency situations involving massive death and destruction like cyclones, earthquakes and tidal waves. We've seen it time and time again.

But then it's not as though the Burmese junta has ever seriously made telecoms in any form a high priority. The latest figures [via Paul Budde, who cautions that the Myanmar MPT isn't the most reliable source for telecoms stats] show that fixed-line penetration only just hit 1% last year. Mobile phone penetration‾ Just 0.7%.

As a point of interest, here's a checklist of the telecoms kit that TSF was ready to bring to the Irrawaddy delta [via the BBC]:

  • BGAN satellite link (data and voice: 432-kbps). Primary connection
  • GAN M4 satellite link (data and voice: 64-kbps). Used as backup
  • Large VSAT satellite dish for long term deployments
  • At least two satellite phones including a mobile device
  • Mobile phones and local sim cards if GSM infrastructure intact
  • Routers and access points for communication centre
  • Wireless relays to extend coverage
  • PCs, printer and scanner
  • GPS
  • Power packs including car batteries and solar panels

All of which would probably have amounted to the best telecoms service the delta has ever seen.

Maybe that's why the junta wouldn't let them in - the MPT is a monopoly, after all. It wouldn't do to have locals realizing that telephone service does get better than what they've been given.

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