Subject: Official inaction puts future of vital East Timor radio link at risk

The Australian

Monday, December 7, 2009

Official inaction puts future of vital East Timor radio link at risk

Gary Evans

Nothing has been done to advance the spread of the network

IT might be the age of bandwidth, BlackBerrys and broadband, but hundreds of village people in remote areas of the world's newest democracy rely on two-way radios for emergency and daily communication.

But a vital radio network that has saved lives and provided communication throughout villages in three East Timor sub-districts is at risk because of government inaction.

The solar-powered network -- Connect East Timor -- provides radio links in 27 villages in the Atabae, Balibo and Lacluta sub-districts.

It was built by donations of time and equipment by Australian radio technicians and generous Australians.

Two-way radios were installed in villages throughout the sub-districts and local residents trained in their operation. They have proved invaluable in emergency medical evacuations and are used daily for communication between villages.

A team of Australian technicians visited the radio locations in September for maintenance and to ensure that all radios were working properly.

The future of the network is now under threat unless the East Timor government responds quickly.

The leader of Connect East Timor, Peter de Haas, has contacted the administrators of the three sub-districts saying the organisation cannot continue to support the operation beyond December 31, 2011.

The Connect East Timor team will make another maintenance visit before the deadline but after that donated funds would be completely used, Mr de Haas said.

``The radios installed were intended to be a test of systems to see if they were useful for all the people in rural areas,'' he said.

``They have provided a vital network in many remote areas and have been instrumental in ensuring the safe delivery of several children and other medical emergencies, law and order management and even notifying relatives of funerals. It was always envisaged that the government would implement this radio system in all sub-districts under what is called Project Telesuco.''

In February last year, the Ministry of Infrastructure received information on the radio system and relevant papers to progress Project Telesuco but nothing has been done to advance the spread of the network through other rural areas. Consequently, 300,000 people in other sub-districts do not have access to affordable communications and are unlikely to have it in the foreseeable future.

Connect East Timor has appealed to the administrators of the trial sub- districts to have those using the network convey its benefits to the government in Dili.

``Connect East Timor hopes the radio network will continue and expand. The organisation would like to work with the people of Timor Leste to ensure this happens,'' Mr de Haas said.

``It would be best if the desire for this in expressed by the people of Timor-Leste themselves rather than people from Australia.''

Gary Evans is a retired journalist who has twice visited East Timor to train young journalists and to advise on the establishment of a local press council.

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