Unicef Connects Relief Workers With VSAT Satellite System

Andre Spatz, CIO of the United Nations Children's Fund, was named a Premier 100 IT Leader before the December 2004 tsunami that devastated more than a dozen countries in Southeast Asia and Africa. But that disaster underscored the genius of the connectivity system put in place by Spatz's team over the past two years.

Unicef operates in more than 158 countries before, during and after armed conflicts, natural disasters and other tragedies. "We need operational excellence in a difficult environment," Spatz says.

And whereas many other admirable relief organizations pull up stakes soon after a disaster ends, "we have to create sustainable change," Spatz says. "We have a long-term presence."

To fulfill this mandate, Unicef needs to establish field offices and communications infrastructures rapidly and, in many cases, under almost unimaginable duress. That's where the agency's Fly-Away VSAT program comes in.

Rapid Response

In 1998, Unicef made the then-bold decision to make IP its sole networking standard. A few years later, the organization asked one of its telecommunications providers, which Spatz declines to name, about the possibility of running IP traffic over the VSAT satellite communications system. "That was in 2000, and people said, 'Who would ever want that?' " he recalls.

Unicef persevered and was soon running a global IP WAN over satellites. Today, field workers can use a secure global IP network, complete with quality-of-service protocols, to access the same intranet, Internet, infrastructure management and voice-over-IP systems that workers at the organization's New York headquarters enjoy.

Until two years ago, however, there was a crucial drawback to the satellite system: The necessary hardware, including antennas, made it hard to transport to and set up in a typical disaster zone. "We understood that we needed an easily transportable version that could be set up in a very short time frame," Spatz says.

Co-developed with Unicef's satellite provider, which Spatz also declines to name, Fly-Away VSAT has proved its mettle all over the world. The setup includes all servers, routers, switches and associated hardware, housed in ruggedized, military-style racks. According to Stephen Fazio, Unicef's global head of telecommunications, deployment time usually ranges from 30 minutes to four hours, depending on antenna type.

At a typical site, the initial installation is performed by Unicef IT and telecommunications workers. However, during the design of Fly-Away VSAT, Spatz's group placed a premium on simplicity and ease of setup. As a result, local relief workers can be trained in dismantling, transporting and setting up the system. "You cannot do that with standard satellite systems," Spatz says.

Barbara Gomolski, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., applauds the move. "It's a good way to keep costs down, and IT staffs at these groups tend to be very lean, so any offloading you can do is welcome," she says.

The Fly-Away VSAT system is being used in Unicef's tsunami-relief efforts and has been deployed in Iraq, Haiti, several Asian nations, South America and elsewhere.

In November 2003, in response to dire education needs in Liberia, Unicef supported that nation's Ministry of Education when it launched a back-to-school campaign whose goal was to help at least 750,000 children and 20,000 teachers return to 3,700 schools. Within a month, the Fly-Away VSAT system had helped Unicef distribute 4,623 "school in a box" kits, providing supplies for nearly 334,000 children.

Today, 10 to 15 Fly-Away VSAT units are in use, Spatz says. Since the first one was deployed, "we've been scaling it down in both price and size," he says, adding that "we've now got it down to a very reasonable cost."

In another evolution, Unicef has made it possible for other relief agencies to share the resource. "They can just hook in and set up their own pipe to the sky," Spatz says. "That's important at a time like this."

Ulfelder is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact him at sulfelder@charter.net.

United Nations Children’s Fund


Organization: This nonprofit works for children’s rights and their survival, development and protection. Unicef operates in more than 158 countries and 245 locations.

Project champion: Andre Spatz

IT department: 600

Project payback: Unicef operates a global IP WAN over satellites, allowing field workers to use a secure global IP network to access an intranet, the Internet, infrastructure management systems and voice-over-IP systems.

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