D.C. telecom lawyer races to front lines in global disasters


The non-profit organization TSF is funded through the U.N. Foundation and private donations from Vodafone and AT&T. Above, a local TSF volunteer named Lito offers free satellite calls to typhoon survivors in Giporlos, Philippines. (Courtesy of Telecoms Sans Frontieres, www.tsfi.com )

As a telecom lawyer, Paul Margie comfortably operates in the climate-controlled offices and white-tablecloth establishments of Washington. But when disaster strikes somewhere else in the world, he goes into the heart of havoc to set up emergency phone and Internet service for the relief group Telecoms Sans Frontieres.

Last fall, Margie raced across the typhoon-ravaged islands of the Philippines to connect local villages and thousands of people to satellite phones and the Internet. Carrying just a backpack with satellite phones, batteries and energy bars, he rode, wedged between two other volunteers, on a single motorbike across hundreds of miles as they helped villages that had been cut off from communication.

“It looked like Hiroshima, homes totally flattened, cell towers torn from the ground,” Margie said, soon after he returned from the two-week trip.

His mission with Telecoms Sans Frontieres, or Telecom Without Borders, was to provide the first communications link to the emergency first responders who brought food and repaired roads. And for people desperate to learn about loved ones, Margie helped connect thousands to their family members.

In Barangay Pagbabangnan, on Homonhon Island, he handed Stephanie, an elementary school girl, a satellite phone to talk to her parents who were working and living hundreds of miles away in Manila. Margie said her stone face melted into a wide grin when she heard her mother’s voice for the first time in days.

Stephanie was among dozens of children who had lined up with the phone numbers of parents scrawled on scraps of paper, he said. Telecoms Sans Frontieres, backed by the United Nations Foundation, gave them each a free three-minute call.

Increasingly, Telecoms Sans Frontieres is setting up Internet cafes with hotspots for people to connect their smartphones to the Web. Once connected to social networks, they are able to send messages to family and friends all at once.

The nonprofit organization is typically the first to provide communications services for emergency responders, and it often leaves a satellite phone for a village mayor to keep.

The group is funded through the U.N. Foundation and private donations from Vodafone and AT&T. Since it was formed in 1998, Telecoms Sans Frontieres has assisted 10 million people in Thailand, Haiti, Turkey, Syria, and Mali. Its headquarters is in France, and the group has offices in Bangkok and Managua, Nicaragua.

In Washington, Margie is Telecoms Sans Frontieres’s only U.S. volunteer. For years, he said, that job entailed basic lawyering — filing paperwork and coordinating with the local offices of agencies such as USAID.

Margie, 43, a partner at Wiltshire & Grannis, said he became involved with Telecoms Sans Frontieres after years at the Federal Communications Commission and partnering with USAID, where he worked on African telecommunications regulation and other global telecom policy initiatives.

But a few years ago, he decided to see how Telecoms Sans Frontieres works firsthand. He said he was woefully unqualified for the on-the-ground work that setting up simple phone service entails.

To prepare, he had to learn how to install and point a satellite dish. Even though he’s written hundreds of pages of legal papers on the technology, he said he’d never handled a dish before.

The installation training program asked if he would need to borrow a hard hat for the course or if he would bring his own.

“Are you kidding? I’m not exactly the kind of guy who gets dirt under my fingernails,” he said.

In Washington, Margie hopes to help Telecoms Sans Frontieres grow. The organization is exploring how cellphones can be used to transfer money and how new technologies such as social media can play a greater role in relief efforts. The group hopes to boost its funding and increase its roster of volunteers.

“Paul has a very accurate knowledge of the function of the organization and has an excellent network of relationships with stakeholders in the United States,” said Jean-François Cazenave, president and co-founder of Telecoms Sans Frontieres. “But it was important for him to be able to explain what it really means to coordinate relief, and without being in the field, he couldn’t really do that.”

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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