Skype Goes Minimalist; Providing “Priceless” Communications to One Segment of the World’s Highest Risk Takers

Skype.UNHCR.logosAid workers and care givers who provide services in politically- and infrastructure-challenged countries where law and order is not necessarily a given, where war, violence and crime are rife, have always ranked very high on my admiration list as one of the most unselfish and high risk roles that one can perform in hopes of betterment of individuals’ lives. And often these workers are in hardship situations where they must spend not only weeks or months but even years with little or no contact with their families and friends.

So what is Skype doing to help?

Today Skype announced a partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) where Skype has not only worked to supply communications services to 120 “hardship locations” but also adapted their software technology to deal with the low bandwidth communications infrastructure available to these locations. Skype’s Antoine Bertout has discussed this partnership with UNHCR’s Mohammed Faisal:

UNHCR’s Mohammed Faisal and Skype’s Antoine Bertout provide some background on using Skype in hardship locations.

In Skype experiments with refugee workers, Skype Journal’s Phil Wolff outlines some of the special technical features of this “bespoke” version of Skype:

Changes that limit bandwidth use:

  • Video will not start automatically.
  • Video will not start until Skype sees needed bandwidth.
  • Skype’s SILK voice CODEC (8-40 kbps) will be used when possible.
  • No Facebook support.

In the video you will hear Mohammed refer to “our network”; there is an element of a virtual private network (“VPN”) involved in some circumstances as well. Also the client supports Skype Chat, including Group Chat, and SkypeOut calls to the PSTN. Note also that the Blue Wall firewall incorporated into the associated infrastructure allows calls only “outside business hours” in order to minimize impact on critical business operations.

Video calling may be bandwidth challenged in some situations; it would be interesting to know what resolutions and frame rates are supported (even if lower that High Quality Video’s 640 x480 @ 30 fps, at least one should be able to see images at, say 320 x240 @ 15 fps, etc., given Skype Video’s bandwidth adaptation features). But just hearing a distant voice will suffice for most calls.

But why just for UNHCR?

Dan York questions why such technology would not also benefit a sector of the business market in Interesting Tech in Skype’s Low-Bandwidth Version for UNHCR – Wouldn’t Enterprises Want This?:

As I listened to the video, it definitely occurred to me that there are businesses and organizations out there who could also benefit from a low-bandwidth version of Skype. I think, for instance, of shipping companies with limited Internet connectivity to vehicles or ships. Or to companies with distributed offices with very small branch offices with very small Internet connections.

Skype’s Peter Parkes has responded to a comment (to the original Skype blog post) about other aid organizations with:

UNHCR is the first partner to benefit from this low-bandwidth version of Skype for Windows. A large dispersed organization such as UNHCR is an ideal testing environment to evaluate the performance of this software in a wide variety of challenging connectivity networks. At the moment we are focused on ensuring a successful roll-out of Skype to a planned 80 to 85 per cent of UNHCR “hardship” locations before the end of 2011.

As such, it is not currently available to other organizations or the general public to download. It is clear to us however, that others could benefit from the changes and the lessons learned during the evaluation of the software that Skype has developed for UNHCR. Unfortunately, however, we are unable able to talk about our future intentions and can only discuss our partnership with UNHCR at present.

You can support UNHCR’s activities also….

Skype and UNHCR have also put up a page where you can provide financial resources to UNHCR to assist with supplying textbooks and training manuals, funding teachers and purchasing solar-powered computers, amongst other requirements that go to support their programs.

Bottom line: Over the past few decades advances in communications technology have helped to overcome many political injustices, natural disasters and barriers to economic opportunity . While it’s been great that Skype offers many cost-free services to all of us,  when it comes to providing assistance to those helping peoples disengaged from life’s real opportunities, Skype’s services become “priceless”.

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About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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