UN IASC Emergency Telecommunications Cluster


The Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) is one of 11 function-based clusters of the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Cluster System and is used to approach humanitarian and emergency relief during disasters. The Cluster Approach ensures the efficient and effective coordination of programming and services related to humanitarian and emergency relief activities by coordinating activities based on function instead of geography or organization. 

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) leads the ETC. It includes businesses and nongovernmental, humanitarian and UN organizations involved in providing emergency telecommunications before, during and after a disaster. The ETC is the lead for all things communications-related, such as two-way radios for humanitarian and emergency responders, wired and wireless internet, traditional landlines, cell phones, satellite phones or even the radio frequencies that control drones over long distances. While the ETC has historically provided emergency telecommunications services directly, they are adjusting their operations to serve as a facilitator to support emergency telecommunications during emergency responses in which they are activated.

Disaster-impacted people must be able to access information and communication services. Without this access, they cannot share information with people and organizations outside the affected area or make informed decisions about what is best for their communities. The ETC also ensures that communications methods between responding organizations – such as two-way radios – don’t interfere with each other or local responders by coordinating the radio frequencies available for use.

The ETC focuses on four strategic priorities:

  • Communications as aid to enable communities to access connectivity when they need it most – in times of crisis.
  • Improved and decentralized response readiness to ensure local people, processes and equipment solutions are ready to activate rapid communications responses to disasters.
  • Increased communications resilience to disasters to help affected governments safeguard systems and prepare for responses when disasters strike.
  • Enhanced communications and energy to enable a wider group of traditional and non-traditional humanitarian responders to save and improve lives.

“Communications technology has completely changed the way people live, connect and find information. It is also changing the way people are impacted by, and respond to, emergencies. At the same time, the humanitarian landscape is evolving with more disasters, more complexity and therefore more responders. The ETC has therefore become more agile, localized and more connected, reaching more people by becoming an enabler through connectivity. The ETC makes it possible for affected populations and governments to be better connected to better manage their responses to emergencies.” – From About the ETC

Key Facts

  • While they can deploy worldwide, the ETC is primarily active in Africa, the Middle East and the South Pacific. In April 2021, the ETC operated in more than 25 countries to respond to eight emergencies, including the conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria and the Central African Republic and others like the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.
  • The ETC is working to improve communications preparedness in the South Pacific. Island nations in the South Pacific are among the most vulnerable to disasters and the hardest to reach with rapid relief supplies. Because communication is essential to damage assessments and resource requests, the ETC works in island nations such as the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to ensure rapid access to communications after a disaster. Their work in the Pacific includes island-wide VHF radio networks, rapid-deployment satellite communications systems and permanent satellite communications infrastructure.
  • In addition to internet, radio and telephone resources, the ETC also supports local broadcasters, especially in places where they are the only news source. While much of their focus is on access to more extensive information networks, the ETC also supports local broadcasters with transmission and studio equipment, power solutions and broadcast towers or antennas. Whenever possible, the ETC sources these resources locally to help the area’s economic recovery.
  • COVID-19 forced a rapid increase in ETC activities. While the ETC and other UN Clusters are primarily activated in response to natural disasters, the ETC has been extremely active during COVID-19. In addition to supporting call centers in the Central African Republic, Libya, Fiji and Yemen, they have also supplemented communications technology in 22 Pacific countries and territories and helped connect people in over 20 COVID-19 quarantine, isolation or treatment centers to people outside of those centers.
  • The ETC is responsible for coordinating the use of drones in locations where they are active. While it may not be the first thing associated with telecommunications, there are limited radio frequencies accessible to different types of equipment. The coordination of radio frequencies to ensure the best signal and least amount of interference for radio, data and drone use is an essential function of the ETC.

How to Help

  • Provide unrestricted cash donations when possible. Cash donations allow participating organizations to provide products and services that are flexible and responsive to the situation’s needs. Cash is particularly important for the ETC because of the specialized nature of the equipment and training needed for telecommunications.
  • Fund research and development of agile, responsive and sustainable telecommunications technology and infrastructure. Because of the challenging and variable locations and circumstances in which the ETC operates, the cluster needs support for innovative solutions that are less reliant on external infrastructure. Telecommunications technology and infrastructure that can adapt to variable situations and locations, responsive to users’ needs and withstand disaster conditions are key to helping the ETC fulfill its mission.
  • Support all levels of technical and telecommunications-related training. Increasing the number of trained and capable people reinforcing the ETC’s mission will strengthen the ETC and help sustain the countries’ long-term technological and economic development where trained people live and work.

What Funders Are Doing

  • In 2018, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, in partnership with a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, provided NetHope with a $12,246 grant to provide connectivity for NGOs and community organizations in Guatemala affected by the 2018 volcanic eruptions to help manage disaster information and identify needs.
  • In 2018, the United States government donated just under $1 million to Internews, an ETC partner, to support their work with Jamjang 89.4 FM to provide communications to refugees and host community nationals in South Sudan.
  • In 2016, Ericsson, an ETC partner company, received a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the preliminary design of an interoperable mobile payment system that is pre-integrated and packaged for rapid deployment in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
  • In 2015, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation donated $829,865 to the World Food Programme to support a global virtual supply chain for pandemic preparedness and response.

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(Photo source: Emergency Telecommunications Cluster)