The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has launched new guidelines for the development and implementation of National Emergency Telecommunication Plans to effectively enable countries’ disaster response activities amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The guidelines will assist national authorities and policymakers in developing policies and regulations that can ensure the continued use of telecommunication networks and services before, during and after a disaster.
“The exceptional Covid-19 crisis we are going through right now shows how vital information and communication technology networks and services are, both to respond to the current pandemic and to address disaster management,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao.
“Now more than ever, the implementation of comprehensive national emergency telecommunication plans can ensure there is effective and timely sharing of information across all levels of government, within affected communities and among humanitarian agencies to prioritise response efforts and to save lives."
A national emergency telecommunication plan sets out a strategy to enable and ensure communication availability during the phases of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery by promoting coordination and engagement across all levels of government, humanitarian agencies, service providers and communities at risk.
This comes as the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) engages communication licensees to facilitate easy and affordable access to data in South Africa.
South Africans are increasingly working and learning from home, with day-to-day life activities undertaken through technological means, and along with constantly accessing up-to-date information regarding the pandemic, a surge in data use is expected.
“In this context it is therefore critical that the authority consider regulatory concessions or relaxations to enable the sector to meet the demands of the 'business unusual' environment occasioned by the pandemic,” said Icasa acting chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng, noting the increased strain network capacity will be under.
“In this regard, the authority is engaging the sector on possible ways of radio frequency spectrum relief for the duration of the declared state of disaster to ease congestion, ensure good quality of broadband services, and enable licensees to lower cost of access to consumers, particularly in relation to education, emergency and other social services.”
Icasa would further consider relaxing the tariff notification filing requirements for licensees to tailor packages, specifically data packages, to respond to the pandemic.
South African telecommunications group Vodacom said it would ensure that there was sufficient network capacity to enable people and businesses to seamlessly work from home.
“As a responsible corporate citizen, Vodacom will assist governments and do what is possible, in order to cope with the Covid-19 situation,” it said in a statement.
In partnership with the Department of Health, Vodacom is providing SMS awareness messaging to over 44-million subscribers on hygiene etiquette.
MTN assured that it would “keep the connectivity lights on at all costs”, while zero-rating a USSD line for reporting infections and for other critical information, and opening two zero-rated Ayoba Covid-19 channels to share updated news and information.
MTN, with immediate effect, will offer a free 20 MB lifeline that can be accessed through its Ayoba app, said MTN South Africa CEO Godfrey Motsa.
MTN is also working with the national Department of Health to raise awareness of its official “Dept of Health Corona” WhatsApp channel, besides other initiatives.
Meanwhile, the tabled ITU guidelines highlight major areas of risk during a disaster, provide justification for the funding of vital equipment and personnel in an emergency, and advocate the need for day-to-day resources and procedures that keep national authorities prepared, especially in relation to maintaining vital communications, the essential lifeline during emergencies.
“When disaster strikes there is no time to think about what to do and how to organize a response. It is crucial that all stakeholders are prepared beforehand and ready to take action,” explained ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau director Doreen Bogdan-Martin.
In addition, ITU and the Global Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) have joined forces to develop a Tabletop Emergency Simulation Guide which offers tools to test and refine the national emergency telecommunication plans using simulated scenarios.
“With the growing frequency and complexity of disasters, it is vital to test, identify and close any gaps in national readiness. The scenarios in this simulation guide will make it easier for all stakeholders to do that ahead of time,” concluded ETC chairperson Enrica Porcari.