Remarks at the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster "Connect Day"

Charles H. Rivkin
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Washington, DC
May 4, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Enrica.

As Enrica told you, I am the Assistant Secretary of State for the Economic and Business Bureau, or “EB,” as we are better known. And I would like to welcome the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, or ETC, and all participants to the first-ever “Connect Day” held in the United States.

As you know, EB runs the Office of International Communications and Information Policy. We are the U.S. government’s interagency lead on information and communication technology international policy.

We are especially proud to cosponsor this day because increasing access to communications worldwide is a priority for the U.S. government. As more and more disasters occur around the world, that access has become even more critical. It enables people to communicate. It allows our responses to become more targeted, more efficient and more effective. Ultimately, access to communications is fundamental to improving lives and dignity, livelihoods and economies.

I must admit: It took some learning experiences for us in the government to appreciate the importance of coordinated communications in the face of disaster. But now, it has become something that we continue to advocate for within the U.S. government.

I was just talking about this with Joe Burton, my colleague at EB. And I mention him because I know he’s well known to many of you. I don’t think there’s anyone in the State Department who has worked harder and more closely with ETC.

He shared a learning experience with me that led him to understand the importance of a coordinated communications response during natural disasters, and the need for preparation prior to disaster.

It was in 2010, right after the earthquake that struck Haiti. Buildings were flattened. As many as 230,000 people were killed – and many more injured. It was a full scale tragedy that called for “all-hands” support from the global community.

Back then, Joe, who works in our telecommunications policy office, and did not have experience working on disaster response, got a call from industry and civil society contacts.

They told him the telecommunications situation in Haiti was critical. A major Internet exchange point, or IXP, which was located on the scenic Boutillier Mountain in Port-au-Prince, was losing power. They needed gasoline urgently to fuel a backup generator so that internet connectivity could be maintained.

Without communication, people all over Haiti were going to have real problems reaching one another and coordinating their responses.

As Joe Burton told it, we were almost literally stumbling our way forward.

We weren’t aware of all the other federal agencies involved in the effort. We were also unaware of the ETC, who already had men and women on the ground within 24 hours. They and other organizations were already working to establish wireless internet connectivity and radio networks across the country.

Ultimately, Joe and our EB team arranged for Southcom to provide the gasoline the generator needed. And they also managed to secure permission for two mobile operators to land their planes in Haiti so they could bring equipment and engineers to the island.

But all of this would have gone more smoothly, if we were part of a wider and connected network.

Joe’s point was: no community facing disaster or conflict can afford any more confusion than they’re already dealing with.

We learned very quickly how important it was to be part of a global network of organizations working together to provide shared communications services in humanitarian emergencies.

So in July of that same year, 2010, we brought telecom companies together to better understand how each helped Haiti and how we might better enable their response efforts going forward.

Participants overwhelmingly noted that greater coordination among responders would have enabled more targeted, efficient responses.

We then kicked off an advisory process that continues to guide our work and our activities today.

EB’s own ACICIP, which is the Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy, identifies ways we can work to reduce barriers to enable response wherever possible.

Since then, we have improved in many other ways. We recognize that emergency response must come from more than humanitarian organizations. Governments, and the communities affected, must also be a part of the process.

With a two-way flow of communication, we can direct communities to services and resources they need, and we can assess their individual needs.

Just as importantly, they can use their communications capability to call attention to what help is needed for them and their community.

They can organize as communities and become their own responders. They can restore their livelihoods and, most importantly, their dignity.

That is why we are proud to stand in support of ETC’s “ETC2020” strategy, which is working to strengthen local communities as first-responders, and enable innovative and more effective humanitarian assistance over the next five years.

That is also why I believe it’s appropriate to mention our own Global Connect Initiative today. Its purpose is to promote and support internet connectivity as an integral part of all national and international development strategies.

As we know, many developing countries have sustained natural and wartime disasters in recent years. And their problems are often complicated by poor connectivity.

While access to communications worldwide is important during disasters, it’s just as critical to have access all the time. When they’re connected to the global community, those nations can prosper economically, and strengthen themselves in strategic ways for any future disasters should they occur again.

Like the ETC Strategy, the Global Connect Initiative has targeted the year 2020, to bring 1.5 billion new internet users online in developing countries. And also like the ETC Strategy, its success will depend on governments, industry, civil society, the technical community, international financial institutions and international development organizations working together to accelerate our efforts.

At EB, we recognize that partnerships are important. And we know we can play a key role by bringing stakeholders together, and facilitating the process for communities to get the communications they need.

For example, during Cyclone Pam, the most intense tropical cyclone in the southern hemisphere in 2015, we connected NGOs with government communications officials in Vanuatu.

We are also co-leading ETC’s 2020 Haiti pilot. We are excited about this, because it will help the ETC understand the technology landscape in vulnerable countries, so it can help build their communications resilience and capacity for the future.

Today you will have the opportunity to share ideas and best practices about how we can better realize a coordinated and effective ICT response. And our office of International Communications and Information Policy – or maybe I should just say “Joe Burton” – looks forward to continuing our close coordination with the ETC.

I’d like to leave you with the words of an old industrialist – Henry Ford. While his business was automobiles, he knew a thing or two about the importance of team work.

He said: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

I believe we are well on our way to accomplishing all three, as we work to build robust networks to respond to disasters and conflicts all over the world.

To our ETC colleagues, let me say: Thank you for the work you do every day to bring lifesaving communications to communities in need around the world.

Thank you, also, to our industry, humanitarian, government and civil society colleagues here today. Your willingness to roll up your sleeves to partner with and support the ETC mission and its 2020 strategy will not only change lives, it will save them.

Thank you.