Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Information Note on Telecommunications in UNHCR

Executive Committee Meetings

Information Note on Telecommunications in UNHCR

27 March 1995


1. UNHCR is a major user of telecommunication services. With over 200 office locations, good communications are vital for efficient programme delivery and staff security. Many of these offices are in remote areas with a poor communications infrastructure. Over the last few years UNHCR has developed facilities which meet the essential needs of international long-haul communications, regional and inter-field office communications, mobile communications (i.e., for use in vehicles and by individuals), and emergency response operations. A variety of message types are supported, depending on the particular network, including voice, fax, electronic mail (email) and data.

2. This paper briefly describes current capabilities and plans for improved facilities. UNHCR is actively working on a number of initiatives, discussed below, intended to improve service levels and reduce costs, notably in the areas of satellite communications, data networks and "least cost" routing of calls. The paper also touches on the key role UNHCR plays in promoting common standards and encouraging shared facilities in the wider area of United Nations field telecommunications.


3. Where available and of sufficient capability, UNHCR takes advantage of existing national communication infrastructures. However, in many less developed, remote or devastated areas UNHCR needs to install its own telecommunication networks. They can be classed as follows:

(a) Long Distance: shortwave radio transmission may be used for sending cables (but no voice) between locations and/or Headquarters. By this method, known as PACTOR (Packetized Teletype Over Radio), text can be transmitted at approximately 200 characters per second. This is effective and uses low-cost equipment; but it is limited to certain time slots each day and is slow. Approximately 60 branch offices and 144 sub-offices are equipped with PACTOR. Radio traffic has increased steadily over the last few years; from a total of 24,000 messages in 1990 to 70,550 in 1994.

(b) Mobile: using high frequency radio transceivers mounted in vehicles, UNHCR staff are able to maintain full voice contact with base for a radius of up to 1,000 kilometres. This facility has been refined over the years to simplify communication for non-technical staff, whilst also providing a rugged capability in difficult terrain. There are at present approximately 200 base stations supporting over 1,200 vehicles (belonging to implementing partners as well as UNHCR). In addition, UNHCR has issued some 2,000 hand-held radios for the use of individual staff working in all conditions. These mobile networks have proven invaluable in difficult, insecure or extended operational conditions.

(c) Security Communications: UNHCR has increasingly found that it has to operate in unstable regions of the world where it must provide adequate communications for staff security. This has typically been done by setting up multi-repeater VHF networks. Using repeaters to extend the communication range, staff equipped with battery powered hand-held radios are able to talk to one another, and their base, when up to 60 kilometres apart.

4. UNHCR makes extensive use of INMARSAT portable satellite communications equipment for full voice and fax capability where no alternatives exist. These devices are particularly useful for international communications in emergency conditions. Although excellent for their purpose, INMARSAT sets are limited to a single voice channel ("one person at a time") and usage is very expensive (between $ 6.50 and $ 10.00 per minute); in 1993 and 1994 the INMARSAT bill for UNHCR exceeded $ 2 million. At present, UNHCR deploys about 80 INMARSAT terminals of three different specifications, Standard A, C & M, the last, a digital briefcase-sized device.


5. Although these operational and well proven means of communications serve UNHCR offices well, good reasons exist to consider other options for the future. Communications traffic continues to grow in line with UNHCR's overall growth, and with it, costs. There is a need for cost-effective communications between offices and personnel of UNHCR, without constraint of time or place; and there have been major changes in the telecommunications environment itself. These changes include an easing of regulatory restrictions in some parts of the world and major advances in communications technology. UNHCR intends to exploit these changes. The various options of private satellite networks (VSAT), private data networks (X.25), electronic mail, and upgrades to present radio systems are dealt with in turn below.

6. Satellites: VSAT networks (or Thin Route networks, so called because traffic levels are low compared with, say, between New York and London) are satellite networks intended to serve a large number users through the use of low-cost small-dish antenna terminals, named VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminals). They are widely used in areas where conventional communications are severely limited, or inadequate to provide the desired level of service. These antennas, or dishes, communicate through a geostationary satellite in whose "footprint" they are located. VSAT networks can be meshed, i.e., each VSAT location establishing direct satellite links with other VSATs in the networks. Actual communications are handled through a large antenna, called a hub, which acts as a central switch for the network. A wide range of services are available over VSAT networks: voice communications, fax, image, audio and video, collection and monitoring for data, two-way interactive services for computer transactions, and database inquiry.

7. In January 1993 UNHCR decided to pursue the creation of a VSAT network. From the outset UNHCR has felt that such a network should be built in cooperation with other United Nations organizations, for obvious reasons of economies of scale, but also taking account of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Resolutions which allow the United Nations to obtain resources and operate a telecommunication network for its exclusive use on advantageous terms.

8. In May 1993 UNHCR and the United Nations Secretariat initiated an Inter-Agency Working Group to establish the basis for a joint network. The Working Group has met four times (under the chairmanship of UNHCR) with participation from UNICEF, UNDP, Department of Peace-keeping Operations (DPKO), WFP and others. Technical feasibility has been checked with INTELSAT, the satellite service provider, and the proposed technical specification is currently being finalized by these parties, again coordinated by UNHCR. The United Nations Secretariat has for some time been developing plans for a backbone satellite network. The backbone is different in purpose from a VSAT network. It provides high-density traffic paths between a smaller number of big offices. However, it also requires a hub antenna. The backbone and VSAT networks can share the same hub, and point at the same satellite. A European hub station has been approved for construction by the General Assembly (General Assembly resolution 48/262). The station will be able to point at two satellites over the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Satellite leases have been ordered. A competitive procurement on behalf of all agencies for a commonly specified VSAT is underway. UNHCR has played the lead role in its technical specification. This new network is clearly an extremely important activity for UNHCR and other United Nations agencies. Overall costs will be charged on an equitable cost-recovery basis to all participants. UNHCR proposes to acquire, commencing in 1995, a sufficient number of VSAT terminals to improve its communications whilst reducing total costs. Significant savings are expected.

9. However, pending implementation of the United Nations satellite backbone network, UNHCR has introduced satellite communications on a contracted basis. The logistical problems associated with the mass influx of refugees to Goma underlined the need for reliable real-time voice communications to coordinate the large scale airlift operation to bring in relief goods. Only communication via satellite is capable of providing the required level of service. As mentioned, UNHCR has relied on portable INMARSAT terminals to fill this need. As each terminal supports only one telephone call at a time, three terminals were required in Goma alone. To provide greater communications bandwidth to the offices in the region, UNHCR signed a contract with Harris Corporation for the provision of VSAT services, allowing up to eight simultaneous telephone calls to be made from each terminal. The network has been extended, and VSAT terminals are now used in Uvira (also linked to Bujumbura using UNHCR-installed UHF rural telephone links), Ngara, Kigali, Bukavu and Goma. Additional terminals are now being installed in Nairobi, Kinshasa and Dar-es-Salaam. UNHCR is also using another commercial VSAT system (Teledata) from Zagreb to Geneva. Use of these systems is providing valuable operational experience prior to deployment of the United Nations system.

10. Data networks and electronic mail: Although email is not in itself a telecommunications carrier, it is discussed here in terms of its impact on traffic, and the possibilities for cost optimization. UNHCR operates across many time zones, and has a need for immediacy of response; email offers means of inter-office communication without regard to time or distance and has been proven effective in field trials, most recently between the Caucasus, Moscow and Geneva. Email can be used not only for correspondence, but also as a means of transporting data files. It is thus very attractive to UNHCR.

11. Email has been operational for all headquarters staff since early 1994 and is used extensively, with over 25,000 messages passing each week. All email users are also connected to the Internet for sending and receiving messages.

12. During the period April to May this year, some 50 field offices will be given access to the email system. The physical connections will be made using the private international (X.25) data network of SITA (Societé International des Télécommunications Aéronautiques). UNHCR has signed a contract for use of this network at a price which will fall short of the equivalent cost of international trunk dialing for the projected volume of traffic. For offices eventually connected to the VSAT system, email will be provided using the satellite network as the carrier.

13. Use of public networks for telephone and fax comes at a high cost to UNHCR. Analyses of our traffic patterns have revealed extensive use of fax machines. Fax is expensive: an A4 page can contain about 2,400 characters. If transmitted by email an A4 page can be compressed for transmission to about 600 characters (about 25 per cent of its original size); when sent by fax this same page can take as many as 30,000 characters. More than 200,000 UNHCR fax messages have been recorded over the last year. Most of the messages are purely textual, rendering them ideal candidates for email, or the slower but nevertheless effective radio. Consequently, UNHCR is putting considerable effort into providing email and "least cost routing", as well as seeking out lower tariff options. Although messages originating in Geneva and many other countries are subject to the monopoly constraints of national post and telecommunications services, options are beginning to emerge; these are being exploited whenever possible. For example, it is now possible to use third-party systems to make international phone calls at lower cost than using a local carrier. UNHCR has begun to use such facilities.

14. Finally, UNHCR has been experimenting with means of sending text messages over VHF radio. Such networks would allow the distribution of messages to the remotest area of an operation, e.g. between a sub-office and a logistics office at the airport, or between sub-office and refugee camp(s). This has been tried successfully in Tajikistan and Rwanda. The extension of data such as email over VHF radio will be complementary to planned VSAT networks, and allow eventual full email connectivity, from Headquarters to the endpoint of the VHF network.


15. UNHCR attaches great importance to sharing its communications capability with other agencies. In recent years some of the field equipment tested and operated by UNHCR in the field has been adopted as a de facto standard, and appears in the UNDP Inter-Agency Procurement Services Office (IAPSO) catalogue. In satellite communications, as described in the paper, UNHCR has taken an active role in ensuring that compatible "field" standards are adopted by all "field" agencies in the United Nations system. Finally, UNHCR makes its networks available to other agencies, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and notes with appreciation similar initiatives on the part of DPKO. At this time such sharing facilities are being introduced in Maputo, Mozambique, and Baghdad, Iraq, as well as in Goma, as described below.


16. The telecommunication facilities currently operational in and around Goma neatly encapsulate the whole UNHCR capability in the field. A full mix of the facilities described above is currently operational. Over 800 individuals from a variety of organizations enjoy the use of the UNHCR VHF network; several dozen vehicles are interconnected over the UNHCR HF network. The field offices themselves are in communication with the outside world over the VSAT network, with backup from the PACTOR radio stations. Staff are able to use the VSAT network through the use of pre-paid calling cards - a useful adjunct to staff welfare. The field offices themselves have telephone exchanges which connect directly with the satellite links. In addition, the closest Rwandese sub-office, Gisenyi, is connected to Goma by a rural telephone, for voice, and VHF packet radio, for data. INMARSAT terminals, where necessary, exist as a backup.