Assessing Communication

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-01-28 Print this article Print

Mayordomo is focused on technical issues that he feels can make a difference as to whether the peace is kept in Sierra Leone. He currently is figuring out the best ways to use:

  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications. While DPKO hasnt embraced VoIP on a broad scale, Mayordomo can experiment with it within his own mission. In fact, he thinks it might help solve some of the network congestion complaints from Koidu. By installing a Cisco router capable of transmitting phone calls like data, as Internet packets, rather than using a separate voice communications channel, he hopes to reduce overall bandwidth consumption.

  • Wireless communications networks. Mayordomo thinks wireless can be a key to U.N. rapid deployment since setup is so much faster than for a wired network. He first used the technology after arriving in the Central African Republic in 1998 to find the network in shambles. Cables between buildings were hanging from tree branches—a typical case of technicians improvising a quick setup and never going back to clean up their work. Instead of rewiring, Mayordomo brought in Aironet wireless-networking equipment, back before Aironet was acquired by Cisco.

  • Power protection. Tropical Africa is one of the most lightning-prone areas in the world, subject to more than 200 days of lightning per year. Whether from lightning or an erratic power grid, electrical surges frequently overwhelm the grounding and protective devices the U.N. employs, damaging computer and networking equipment. Mayordomo is looking for solutions. One possibility: dissipation-array technology, which its developers claim can create an electromagnetic shield against lightning. Power protection, wireless communications, and VoIP are critical to the day-to-day operations at Koidu. Today, in fact, Mayordomo wants to see first-hand how DPKOs existing technology is holding up in the field.

    For peacekeeping, the ultimate test of any technology is how well it works on the ground. Mayordomo has made some use of VoIP at UNAMSILs Freetown headquarters, but putting it in Koidu and requiring it to work over satellite connections is a much more stringent test. And for all his enthusiasm about wireless networking, making it work through Africas tropical downpours and lightning storms is a challenge.

    Mayordomo is traveling to Koidu with two colleagues, Sivabalan Karuppiah and Ambrose Majongwe. Karuppiah, a contractor to the U.N. from Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd., is going to Koidu specifically to address wireless-networking problems. He boards the U.N. helicopter carrying a Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop and a backpack containing a couple of spare Cisco Aironet units to use as a replacement for the malfunctioning wireless communications equipment at the base.

    Majongwe, a communications technician from Zimbabwe, boards the helicopter carrying a Cisco 3725 router like a suitcase. In addition to replacing a misbehaving router in Koidu, he hopes to put the VoIP capabilities of this one to the test. First, he has to defend it against the workers who want to pack it aboard as luggage. "No, I need to keep this with me," he says, settling into the last available seat, a fold-down contraption just inside the exit hatch.

    When the helicopter rotors work up to speed, conversation becomes impossible. Passengers don earmuffs. Mayordomo uses a set of earplugs, saved from a transatlantic flight. Majongwe takes a nap, putting his head down on the router balanced on his lap.

    Next Page: Oct. 29 at Eastern sector command in Koidu, Sierra Leone.

    David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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