Internet phone company Skype announced a bare-bones version of its software Monday designed to work over very low bandwidth connections that often are the only links aid workers in far flung places have to the outside world. Skype S.A. chief executive Tony Bates said the company redesigned its application after being approached by the U.N. refugee agency to help staff working in remote locations communicate with loved ones back home.
Such calls have previously been a rare treat for aid workers, who in addition to enduring harsh climates and the threat of violence also struggle with loneliness when they are catapulted at short notice into emergency situations where regular cell phone networks, let alone landlines, don't reach.
"It's a technology breakthrough in terms of what we can do with Skype, because we're doing this at a very low bandwidth," Bates told The Associated Press. The regular version of Skype is banned from some of UNHCR's field stations because it is too data hungry, competing with mission-critical applications for bandwidth over precious satellite and microwave connections.
The new version - actually based on an older incarnation of Skype that is now obsolete - can carry voice calls over Internet hookups no faster than the dial-up connections used in the early 1990s. Bates said the slimmed-down version is being rolled out to more than 1,000 aid workers in places such as Afghanistan, Darfur and Somalia, where war and dire poverty mean U.S.-style broadband connections are rare.
In future, the software also could be made available to the refugees assisted by UNHCR, as well as to other aid agencies, he said, though there are no plans to release it publicly. Antoine Bertout, who worked on the project with four other Skype volunteers, said engineers took a "back to basics" approach with the software, making many of the newer features dependent on the connection speed and stripping out others such as desktop sharing.
"Skype will recognize whether the bandwidth is strong enough to place a video call," he said, adding that the aid worker version also opts out of Skype's peer-to-peer system, which normally requires users to share their bandwidth with others.
One of those testing the software was UNHCR technician Sylvian Tiako. Speaking over a fragile but audible Skype line from Goma, in eastern Congo, Tiako said he had successfully used the application to call friends and family in west Africa, Europe and North America.
Luxembourg-based Skype said it also would help UNHCR's fundraising efforts, by showing banner ads to users in the United States, Australia and Japan. The refugee agency has embraced technologies such as Google Maps, YouTube and Twitter in recent years to showcase its work helping tens of millions of people fleeing war, poverty and persecution.