Low-bandwidth Skype custom app created for UN Refugee aid workers [Video]

Skype has developed a custom, low-bandwidth version of their voice and video calling app, though it's not for general release. Instead, the bespoke VoIP app is intended for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to be used across 120 hardship locations served by its staff members around the world.

The UNHCR has been testing the app in Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan, and it is now available to 1,010 staff locations including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Iraq, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda. That will expand to more than 3,000 team members by the end of 2011.

While the slimline-Skype is great news for the UNHCR, we're hoping the company uses some of the technology its developed for the custom app to enhance their mainstream VoIP software. It's unclear what sort of bandwidth is actually necessary at the moment, though you can hear a demo of the voice quality in the video below.

Press Release:

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Partners with Skype

Bespoke Skype technology will connect humanitarian workers in the most remote and dangerous regions of the world

First partnership of its kind between Skype and a humanitarian organisation

Fundraising button to be hosted on Skype, for the first time ever, in a bid to raise money to support computer technology and education for refugees

GENEVA & LUXEMBOURG, Nov 6, 2010 – Humanitarian workers in the most remote parts of the world will soon have a new and low-cost way to communicate with colleagues, friends, and families thanks to an unprecedented partnership between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Skype.

Skype has developed a bespoke, low-bandwidth version of its software, for deployment across 120 hardship locations served by UNHCR staff members around the world. Aid workers such as these are typically separated from their families for months at a time, sometimes with very little notice, and have limited opportunities for communication. In addition, all UNHCR employees have to pay for personal calls. Thus, the UNHCR-version of Skype will provide both free and low-cost voice and video calls over the Internet even when accessed through low connectivity networks. This will enable communications for humanitarian workers in some of the world's most remote postings on the one hand, whilst lowering the cost of calling home on the other.

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, Skype and UNHCR 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 percent of UNHCR hardship locations and available to more than 3,000 staff members.

Skype and UNHCR are subsequently exploring the development of a communications solution that will benefit refugees more directly. Using the knowledge and experience from the deployment of Skype to UNHCR staff, the solution will aim to allow refugees to reach family and friends across borders and will also be used to facilitate protection operations, including repatriation, resettlement and family reunification.

"Skype has removed, at a very practical level, some of the most challenging barriers to communications that we experience in these locations," said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "This will benefit not only UNHCR staff and their families at home but, potentially, the tens of millions of refugees and other displaced people in the world today."

"For us, helping the world's displaced is not just about delivering the basics of food and shelter but ensuring they are able to access all the benefits of modernity, including the ability to communicate regularly with friends and family. Our partnership with a technological innovator like Skype significantly advances our aspirations in this regard," Antonio Guterres concluded.

"We are a company dedicated to using our software to enable the world's conversations and effect social change. Our partnership with UNHCR delivers on this mission in a most extraordinary way," said Tony Bates, Skype's CEO. "We are excited by the future possibilities of this partnership. Skype truly is useful for everyone, wherever, and whoever you are."

Understanding the need to secure financial resources for refugees and to further support this partnership, Skype is contributing financially to UNHCR and will begin a campaign to increase public awareness of UNHCR operations and help raise additional funds. The campaign will initially deliver messages via Skype to connected users encouraging them to make a difference to the lives of refugees beginning this holiday period. To find out more visit www.unhcrskype.org.


Established in 1951, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) provides and coordinates international relief for refugees and displaced people, offering them protection and assistance at every stage of their ordeal.

As well as providing emergency shelter, food, water and medical care, UNHCR strives to improve refugees' quality of life and future opportunities. The organisation provides infrastructure, schools and income generating projects in established refugee camps and communities.

With a yearly budget of US$3 billion, UNHCR currently cares for more than 34 million people in 120 countries – 80% of whom are women and children – who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, disaster and persecution.

UNHCR is 97% funded by annual voluntary financial contributions from governments, private individuals, foundations and corporations. UNHCR receives only 3% of its funding from the United Nations regular budget. UNHCR is the recipient of two Nobel Peace Prizes (1954 and 1981).

About Skype

Skype is a communications software whose purpose is to break down barriers to communication. With an Internet-connected device, families, friends and colleagues can get together for free with messaging, voice and video. At low cost, they can also call landlines or mobiles virtually anywhere in the world. Skype has recently introduced group video, allowing groups of more than two people to do things together whenever they're apart.

Founded in 2003 and based in Luxembourg. Skype can be downloaded onto computers, mobile phones and other connected devices for free at www.skype.com