Leading the change in security communications

How limited WFP seed funding grew the Telecommunications Security Standards (TESS) project into a powerful inter-agency service

By Emma Wadland

On a sun-baked hill overlooking Kigali, Rwanda, workers from dozens of humanitarian agencies set up telecommunications repeaters side by side, dotting the drumlin with equipment. It was 1994 and the country was embroiled in genocide.

Despite the heightened security risks, there were no defined security communications standards or procedures keeping humanitarians safe.

In fact, it was typical to see United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations show up to emergencies, as they did in Rwanda, with their own equipment and protocols, working in parallel.

“Without guidelines and uniform standards, all the technology is useless,” says Peter Casier, Telecommunications Security Standards (TESS) Senior Programme Manager for the World Food Programme. He was also on that hill in Kigali.

Checking to make sure security communication is up to TESS standards in the Central African Republic, 2020. Photo: WFP/ETC

The TESS project arrived on the scene in 2018, fuelled by seed funding from the World Food Programme (WFP) and a belief that clear procedures and standards can stop the humanitarian sector from repeating security communications mistakes and duplicating efforts at enormous cost.

Mobile phones, for example, are used more and more in field operations but there were no criteria for employing them as a security communications tool.

UN radio rooms, now known as Security Operations Centres (SOCs), never had clear guidelines for what is expected from them even though they provide a critical security service, managing complex data, systems, and applications.

“These people are core to operations: but it was never clear what we expect from them?” Peter says.

Starting with missions in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal in 2018, TESS demonstrated that proposed upgrades to VHF radio networks were unnecessary and wouldn’t improve efficiencies. And just in these three countries, this observation led to savings of about US$ 1.2 million.

Beyond savings, TESS became synonymous with “inter-agency collaboration” tackling complex technical and procedural issues in technology and security.

In a whirlwind over the next two years, the TESS project –supported by WFP’s Fast IT Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (FITTEST) and in close collaboration with the WFP Technology Division and the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) — standardized security communications infrastructure designed for humanitarians in an astonishing 62 countries, saving the common UN system a tenfold of the annual TESS costs.

Burkina Faso is one of these countries. When terrorist insurgencies increased there in 2019, the UN system opened five new field offices, where under the guidance and support of TESS, the interagency team coordinated by WFP put the new TESS standards to work.

Each of these field offices would have their local Security Operations Centers run from Ouagadougou, the capital city, rather than in field locations. This not only saved the common UN system about US$ 35,000 per month, but also improved efficiency and reduced the number of required field staff.

A watershed moment in June 2020 saw the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) and the Interagency Security Management Network (IASMN) asking TESS to lead an interagency working group that eventually, in less than a year, defined all the UN’s security communications procedures, guidance and standard operating procedure (SOPs). Suddenly, TESS went from a purely technologist service provider role into a position to contribute a critical part of UN security policies.

In another first, TESS and its interagency partners were one of the initial parties to conduct satellite testing of the new Starlink network with SpaceX, well before this service became publicly available. Equally, TESS partnered with other key security telecommunications providers, to help design and test prototype equipment and services, keeping abreast of all newer technologies.

Cargo planes, technicians, logistics and time are all needed to set up communications connectivity in an emergency. This new technology, which TESS is testing, will “dramatically change how we will provide connectivity to operations, and drastically reduce the costs of communications,” Peter says.

Imagine, for instance, being able to pack a satellite the size of a pizza in your suitcase and set up the self-configured solution in a matter of minutes?

While for the first two years, TESS was financed by WFP seed funding, as of January 2020, TESS services have been fully covered by interagency security funds, managed by UNDSS.

Based on TESS’ success, UNDSS and the IASMN requested to convert the project into a permanent service called {TESS+}, which started in January 2021, keeping one eye on field security and the other on innovation and agility.

In addition to being the definitive source on interagency compliance with UN security communications standards, {TESS+} saves WFP US$ 1.76 million per year on investment.

The priceless bottom line, though, are the humanitarian lives protected in operations all over the world by smart security protocols and standardized equipment. As {TESS+} has proven, a little bit of seed funding can go a long way.

To learn more about TESS, go here.

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