Skype teams up with the UNHCR: Why can’t I play?

Skype has just teamed up with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide a customized low-bandwidth version of their video-chat software to locations around the world serviced by UNHCR workers. This new bespoke version of Skype will address issues related to the accessibility and reliability of communications technology that is often paramount to the successful implementation of UNHCR projects on the ground.

While this new technology is currently only being offered to UNHCR employees, Skype will also be adding a donation button to their public software allowing individuals to support computer technology and education for refugees living in UNHCR camps.

According to a press release made by Skype only a few hours ago, “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.”

Is this enough?

3000 staff members by the end of 2011?  Hasn’t Skype grown their own user base from 0 to over 521 Million since 2003? While an eventual public release of the new low-bandwidth software is not yet on the radar, Skype should recognize its unique role in addressing broader issues related to the inaccessibility of communications technology and, either add a better low-bandwidth feature to their current product, or, release the UNHCR product publicly.

Having just finished a 4 month work term at a Johannesburg-based orphanage, I can personally attest to the unrealistic costs associated with both phone and internet services for many small civil society organizations.  While I could access Skype from work, doing so was generally frowned upon due to its consumption of limited bandwidth.  In light of this experience I would suggest that a public release could provide tremendous opportunities for community organizations to connect with the people who matter most, and most importantly, allow them to do so without breaking the bank on bandwidth bills.

For more information on this new Skype product, check out their Press Release. To learn more about the broader role of Communications Technology for Development (ITC4D) check out ICT4D: Information and Communication Technology for Development, Edited by Tim Unwin.

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