Building Bandwidth in Benghazi

Rob Buurveld, Senior Specialist for WFP's Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST).

Rob Buurveld, Senior Specialist for WFP’s Fast IT and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST), travelled from Cairo, Egypt to Benghazi, Libya with one of the first missions into the country after the conflict began. His job was to help establish internet connectivity for the team that was assessing humanitarian needs in the area.

Travelling by car to Benghazi from Cairo takes almost two days. First we went from Cairo to Marsa Matrouh, which is a nice touristic town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Then from there to Salloum, on the border between Egypt and Libya. In the first period after the crisis started, there were a lot of people at the border crossing, completely filling the area. When I reached the border, the numbers had gone down, but it was still very busy. The team from UNICEF, along with a group of sea scouts from Egypt, tried to keep the spirits of the kids up by playing games with them - an endearing sight. Crossing the border took us a few hours but we had all the right paperwork so we got through smoothly enough. 

Once over the border into Libya, we moved on towards Benghazi. The coast road itself is beautiful and nothing at all like I expected. In my mind the whole area was desert but in reality it turned out to be very green, with lots of nice rolling hills. Of course, even with the nice terrain, a nine-hour trip is trying so everyone was happy when we finally arrived in Benghazi.

The inter-agency team I travelled with was there to assess humanitarian needs. Because there was no UN base in Benghazi, a temporary office was set-up for them in a hotel while a more long term solution was being looked at. For the first few days, the “office” was a set of couches next to one of the meeting rooms in the hotel. It doesn’t get more temporary than that! 

Due to the nature of our work, we need to keep in close contact with our offices in Cairo and the rest of the world. As one of the team members, James Elder from UNICEF said to me: “Information has to go out to the rest of the humanitarian community and we work with tight deadlines.” Therefore, to enable the team to do their work WFP, as lead of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC), set up a BGAN (mobile satellite modem) to provide much needed internet connection. This solved the immediate needs and gave us time to set up a more robust solution.

WFP had an office in Benghazi before the crisis in Libya started and fortunately a VSAT [a type of satellite communications system - ed] had already been installed. Now we were able to use this VSAT for WFP and as a temporary solution for the ETC as well. Together with the WFP ICT team we set up a wireless link between the WFP office and the hotel where the inter-agency team was working from. After increasing the bandwidth on the VSAT, we were able to provide ETC members with solid connectivity. 

Things are moving rapidly at the moment with more staff arriving in Benghazi and also providing support to the ETC. Ahmed El Sheikh, IT assistant for WFP in Benghazi said to me: “Work was fairly quiet before, now it’s extremely hectic.” When the inter-agency team moves to a permanent location, we will install a VSAT at that location too. But, for now, the team has the necessary connectivity to do their work and get their information out.

 

Emergency Telecoms Experts
The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) groups together UN agencies and other humanitarian partners with the most relevant expertise in order to provide the telecoms services needed by the humanitarian community in emergencies. WFP, thanks to its extensive experience in emergencies, serves as the lead agency for common security telecommunications services.