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Interesting Tech in Skype's Low-Bandwidth Version for UNHCR - Wouldn't Enterprises Want This?

skype-unhcr.jpgSkype today rolled out a very cool initiative with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) where a new "low-bandwidth version" has been made available to UNHCR field staff so that they can communicate at no cost with family and friends. My immediate question on reading about it was:

Wouldn't many enterprises want this capability? Or a similar version?

The UNHCR Partnership

More on that in a moment, but first this is a great example to me of where VoIP can be used to enable communication in very difficult locations. In this case, the UNHCR already has Internet connectivity going into its locations through various means - this now allows the staff to use that connectivity for real-time communications. Consider where the UNHCR is using this software:

The new software has been tested successfully in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan and is now available to 1,010 staff stationed in remote locations in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda.

By the end of 2010, we plan for that to grow to more than 2,072 members of staff across 60 UNHCR locations including Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. By the end of 2011, the aim is for Skype to be in at least 80% of UNHCR hardship locations and available to more than 3,000 staff members.

All of those are locations where the traditional communication infrastructure may be minimal or in the case of some refugee camps may not even exist.

In reading Skype's blog post and watching their video (embedded below), the technology in the custom version seems to be this:

  • Low bandwidth utilization
  • Ability to work on many different forms of network infrastructure
  • Prioritization of voice over video
  • Network-security-friendly, in that:
    • only this version of Skype would be supported on the UNHCR network (and not the publicly downloadable version)
    • UNHCR can restrict the hours in which Skype can be used (to "off-hours" when UNHCR staff can call home)

I can immediately think of other areas where people might want to use a minimal Skype version like this, and indeed the first comment to Skype's post is for someone looking to use it for medical relief efforts in the Congo. Skype's already being used by many crisis organizations... but a low-bandwidth version might only help them use Skype more efficiently. As Skype's Peter Parkes notes in a response, this is an exclusive trial with UNHCR right now... but I do hope Skype will move quickly to make it available to others.

The Enterprise Side?

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.

More so, my last bullet about a "network-security-friendly" version... the ability to restrict Skype usage to just this custom version would seem to be of use in certain business settings. Sure, you have some control today with Windows Active Directory settings... but it sounds like this offers more control.

I could see some companies, too, liking the ability to restrict the Skype usage to certain hours... although granted this is just a firewall configuration issue once you have a way to firmly restrict the Skype usage to the one version.

Windows Only?

Of course, I was less thrilled to see that this version is Windows-only. I'll save you my standard rant about Skype's fragmented product strategy since I've ranted about that many times before... and in this case Skype is going a closed trial with a single organization, the UNHCR. If UNHCR uses only Windows systems, then it obviously makes sense for Skype to only develop it for Windows for UNHCR.

However, I know from some limited interaction with people involved with crisis relief and development in remote areas that there is a good bit of work going on with Linux-based solutions. For that reason, it would be good to see this low-bandwidth version available for Linux.


In any event, it's great to see this initiative between Skype and UNHCR. The UNHCR folks do some great work under really difficult situations - and anything that can help aid their communication, even if it is just in helping them stay connected to friends and family - is a wonderful gift. I'm looking forward to hearing more about this initiative in the time ahead.

P.S. And purely FYI to either Tony Bates or whomever wrote the blog post, I think probably more people globally would be familiar with the term "custom" versus "bespoke"... but then again that's the fun of the English language. :-)

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