5. Telecommunications system details and options


  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of landlines, mobile phone systems, satellite phone and internet systems, and HF and VHF radio.

Additional reference to communications system components can be found in Chapter 3.9 of the CARE International safety & security handbook.

Landline and mobile (cellular) phone systems rely on existing local infrastructure. If these systems are operational after a disaster, they are the most convenient and cost-effective ways for emergency staff members to communicate with other offices and staff members, and should be used wherever possible. However, after a crisis, they are often disrupted – although recent experience shows that they are one of the first systems to be restored. See Annex 20.9 Mobile phone checklist.

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Cheap calls within the local system
  • Easy to use
  • Minimal training necessary
  • Mobile phones are portable
  • Many office users may connect to one or many phone lines using a telephone switchboard
  • Likely to fail when disaster strikes
  • May require the installation of a telephone switchboard
  • Not useful outside mobile coverage
  • Uncontrolled use or overuse of mobile phones can be expensive
  • Some mobile company coverage may not be suitable
  • May be expensive for international calls

Other operational considerations:

  • Landline telephone systems require a physical cable to be installed between the telephone company distribution point (typically a roadside box or cabin) and the building where the telephone will be located. The telephone company must install this cable. The same telephone company or another company may be contracted to install a telephone switchboard and telephones at appropriate desks throughout the office.
  • Use of mobile phones, while relatively straightforward, can be made more effective by following a basic checklist to ensure all staff who require them have phones with the best coverage available, that pre-paid cards are fully stocked to avoid running out of credit in a crisis and that key numbers are pre-programmed into phones. See Annex 20.9 Mobile phone checklist, for a quick checklist and instructions.
  • See Annex 20.9 Mobile phone checklist, for quick set-up tips for mobile phones during an emergency.
  • Inventory management of mobile phones is important to ensure handsets are not often lost. See section 7.1.
Satellite telecommunications systems are usually required in areas where the local infrastructure has been damaged, is unreliable or does not exist. In areas where infrastructure is limited or damage has been severe, satellite communication systems become essential for both voice and data transfer. In areas where local landline and cell phone systems exist but are unreliable, satellite systems are an important back-up system. Several types of satellite communications systems are described in this section. See Annex 20.10 Comparison chart on satellite terminals.


Satellite equipment (all systems)

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Useable when all ground-based systems are not operating or damaged
  • Useable in any location
  • Easy to learn
  • Easy to carry to an emergency
  • Cheap to use with careful use


  • Can only be used in open areas or with an external antenna
  • Can be expensive
  • May be subject to government regulations
  • Recharge cards must be carried with the phone/terminal
  • Can only be called when the unit is set up and on standby

Satellite hand phones (for example, Iridium, Thuraya)

Satellite hand phones are essential in areas where the local infrastructure has been damaged, is unreliable or does not exist. In emergency situations where infrastructure is limited or damage has been severe, satellite hand phones are essential for voice communications. In areas where local landline and cell phone systems exist but are unreliable, satellite systems are an important back-up system. There are several types of satellite hand phones, of which the two major systems are described below.
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Iridium satellite phones are used world-wide
  • Thuraya satellite phones are cheaper and useful in Africa and the Middle East
  • Small and easy to carry
  • Easy to learn how to use
  • Can connect to the internet for basic text-only emails (avoid attachments)
  • Vehicle and office kits are available for some models
  • Very cheap when used within the one system
  • Easy for users to block the signal by standing too close to buildings
  • Thuraya battery life is short-spare batteries are essential
  • Expensive to call outside the system
  • Very slow internet connection
  • Not useful for sending email attachments
  • May be subject to government restrictions


RBGAN portable satellite internet terminals

Current portable satellite communication systems are very light and convenient to use. Some systems are only half the size and weight of a typical laptop. The basic unit offers a reasonable internet connection. The BGAN systems offer simultaneous internet and telephone services with acceptable internet connection speed, and are capable of connecting to user PCs wirelessly. Internet connections are expensive, and must be used with care to avoid high usage costs. Automatic updates must be disabled on all PCs connected to these terminals. Both systems offer good coverage. See Annex 20.10 Comparison chart on satellite terminals.

VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal)

A permanently fixed satellite dish about 1 m in diameter is used for internet connections and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone calls. This is typically installed after the initial emergency response, due to difficulties with logistics and installation. Depending on the system and the location, the costs can vary from very cheap to very expensive.
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Long-term reliability
  • Good quality connection
  • High speed is available
  • VoIP – phone services available
  • Many users can connect at one time
  • Costs vary greatly depending on location and service providers
  • Difficult to install
  • Cannot be moved easily
  • Support can be difficult to obtain

Other operational considerations:

Government restrictions

  • Use or import of satellite technologies can be restricted, so always check government regulations.

Selecting from equipment options (Iridium, Thuraya, BGAN, Nera, VSAT, etc.)

  • Different brands and service providers of equipment all provide slightly different facilities. Be sure to procure the most appropriate unit for the context. For more information see Annex 20.10 Comparison chart on satellite terminals.
  • Different facilities are available with different BGAN units. You need to compare the most current units to decide on what best suits your needs. Ease of set up and use by multiple team members are important factors.

Using satellite systems

  • All satellite equipment must have a clear view of the sky. Standing outside and beside a building is not good enough-the antenna must have an unobstructed view of all of the sky.
  • It is strongly recommended that satellite phones are used with a hands-free earpiece. The user is then able to continually monitor the signal strength when moving and talking.
  • In the case of the BGAN terminals, the unit must be aligned in the correct direction and elevation at all times.


  • Satellite terminals and hand phones can be very expensive to operate. However, when used carefully, the cost will be reasonable.
  • Remember that the cost is like an expensive international call – even if you’re physically in the same country as the person you’re calling
  • Where possible, use the same system for calls to other CARE phones. This will reduce costs and improve the ease of connection. Calls between satellite phones are much lower than calls to a landline.
  • Internet using portable satellite connections is expensive. A 15 Mb download (for example, antivirus definition files) will cost approximately tens of dollars. A 4 Mb photograph will cost more than USD20. It is very important to disable ‘automatic updates’ on all PCs using portable satellite terminals, as unnecessary costs will be incurred.
Radios are a conventional form of communications equipment and very important for immediate voice communication between staff in the field and the base office. In many high-risk situations, emergency radio contact is essential to permit direct immediate communication between staff in the field and the head office for security reasons.

Radio equipment (all systems)-advantages and disadvantages

Advantages Disadvantages
  • No cost for calls
  • Convenient to use
  • Instant communications possible
  • Mobile radios and handsets are portable
  • May use UN frequencies and repeaters
  • Private companies may allow use of their radio systems
  • UN may assist in programming radios
  • Training is necessary
  • Not useful outside mobile/handset coverage
  • Expensive to set up
  • Government licences for frequencies and radios may be required
  • Large antenna space may be required
  • A separate radio room may be required

VHF (Very High Frequency) radio systems

VHF systems are typically used around towns to communicate back to the office. Handsets are available for communication to individuals. VHF is often referred to as a ‘line-of-sight’ radio system. However, in many circumstances, they can communicate much further. Handsets can communicate 5-10 km to a base station, and further with good conditions. Mobile vehicle sets can communicate up to 25 km (or more) from the base station. With a special antenna fitted, VHF base stations can communicate up to 100 km. With the use of a repeater, handsets may operate successfully up to 25 km from a base station. VHF radios must be installed correctly with a battery back-up for when mains or generator power is unavailable.
Advantages Disadvantages
  • For use when close to other users/office/vehicle
  • Can expand coverage area with repeaters
  • Can be used within UN systems
  • New systems can call individuals
  • Cheap to operate
  • UN can assist in programming
  • Must be set up correctly
  • Repeaters must be in secured areas
  • User training is necessary
  • Multiple frequencies are required for calling and talking
  • Government frequency licence required
  • UN-approved radios may be used with the UN system (and repeaters)
  • Programming kit may be required
  • Can be expensive to set up

HF (High Frequency) radio systems

HF radio systems are used for long-range communications, typically over 50 km and as far as to the opposite side of the world. HF radios are usually base stations and vehicle sets. Individual sets are extremely expensive. Base antennas require a lot of space and must be ordered correctly to suit the frequency of operation. These radios use a lot of power and must be correctly installed with a battery back-up for times when mains or generator power is unavailable. Training and experience are necessary to successfully use a HF radio system. However, with properly trained staff, an extensive system can operate very well over a large geographical area.
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Suitable for long-distance communications
  • Can call and talk across international borders
  • Suitable for vehicle and base stations
  • Cheap to operate (licences may be expensive)
  • UN can assist in programming
  • Expensive
  • Voice quality is not so clear
  • User training is necessary
  • Multiple frequencies are required for different times of day
  • Government frequencies licence is required
  • Can be used with UN HF system
  • Not suitable for individual users
  • Programming kit may be required

Other operational considerations:

Radio frequencies

  • Always check on government frequency allocations and regulations.
  • Government regulates the use of radio frequencies, so therefore licences will be required to use both HF and VHF transceivers.
  • It will often be possible to join the UN radio system and use the frequencies allocated to the UN.