NJIT Student Interns for Telecoms Without Borders: Meet Joe Regan

Joseph Regan is spending a semester interning for Telecoms Without Borders, a group that zooms into disaster areas and sets up emergency telecommunication centers.

Joseph Regan loves computers. He also likes helping people. And given his interests, Regan, an NJIT junior, has found the ideal internship: He’s working this semester at Telecoms Without Borders (TWB), a humanitarian group that swoops into disaster zones and set up telecommunication centers. 

Whether it be a war zone or a natural disaster, TWB uses laptops, GPS systems and satellite phones to establish emergency call centers. Such centers are life savers for the relief workers contending with disasters. The emergency call centers allow humanitarian groups to help the residents living in disaster areas. TWB, started in 1998, has responded to emergencies in more than 50 countries and is supported by the United Nations.

Joseph is the first NJIT student to work for Telecoms Without Borders. Osvaldo Simeone, an assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department contacted TWB last year and asked if they would accept NJIT students as internships. The group welcomed the idea, and Simeone asked the ECE department to post notice of the internship. Joseph applied for it and, given his computing networking background (he’s a computer engineering major) -- and his interest in helping people with problems (the LaSalle Honor Society has honored him for community service), he was accepted.

He’s now living in a university dormitory in Pau, France, where TWB is based. The group is training him how to use its equipment and soon will send him to a disaster zone. 

In this interview, Joseph talks about what it’s like to live in France and intern for TWB, where he’s using his NJIT education to help the group develop new high-tech technology.

How would you describe what TWB does?
It’s a humanitarian group that provides telecommunications assistance to places that have been struck by tragedy.  They go all over the world, even the USA (Hurricane Katrina).  If a town gets hit by a tragedy, we will go out there to help provide satellite phones for other relief groups, the local authorities and the population.  We will form a calling center so that people can stay in touch with their families and friends. They have trained me in how to use these phones and how to conduct these “missions.”

How are you enjoying your internship?
So far, I really like it.  The people are very nice, the food is good and the working conditions are relaxed.  We work for about an hour, take "coffee hour" break, work a little more and then take a lunch break.  My French is rusty, but all the young people here speak English and they have been trying to help me learn.  The section of Southern France I am in is very nice. Crime is nonexistent and everybody goes out of their way to help me.  I am living in the dorm rooms for the University of Pau, and all the residents are extremely nice. Contrary to popular opinion, the French really like the Americans. 

Is this a paid internship?
I took the internship expecting no stipend.  But in France this year the new president changed the law so that interns must be paid 398 Euros monthly ($515). That works out alright for me! With that money I have to pay 100 Euros monthly for my dorm room and food.

Does the internship count as credit?
No, in a way I’ll lose a semester of school, but I am not worried about that.  The only complaint I have is that I lost the right to reserve my single room next year.  Oh well, I'd rather help people out and enjoy my time here. 

Can you discuss the technology project you are working on for TWB?
I am working on a project with one other person to piece together hardware, and install custom software to create a Wifi mesh.  Our goal is to use one internet connection to create a "mesh" of internet by sending out the internet on wireless waves. Then we’ll have another unit pick up the signals and re-broadcast them.  With several of these units, we can "blanket" an area with the internet.  These are not simply repeaters, for our hardware can automatically reconfigure itself if a "node" down the line gets lost. And our system will also automatically figure out the best route to get to a particular destination based on a user's request and end destination.  We are using a 5 GHz backbone for the system and delivering the internet on a standard 2.4 GHz band.  Once we get this technology running, we’ll be able to provide Telecoms with an invaluable tool it can use during an emergency.  Not only will the population living in the disaster area, the relief workers and local authorities have telephone service but they’ll now the internet as well!

And I understand your project has had great success.
Yes. TWB gave me a deadline of June to finish the MESH project. I am working on the project with another student from France, and I saw that it was going to take a very long time and be problematic. I proposed a new way to accomplish the project, and the boss said, "Okay, we will have a competition, you do it your way and the French student, Sebastien, will do it his way."  Two days later, I won the competition!  So my project is done, and now they are giving me more work to do. Other than that, I have been traveling.  I've been to Bordeaux and Spain, both beautiful places and Spain is really fun and wild!

How does French culture differ from American culture? Or are there similarities in the cultures?
Well, I bought a bike here but didn’t realize I was riding on the wrong side of the road -- blowing happily through red lights and not giving it a second thought.  People were looking at me funny, and I nearly got hit by a car! Later on I learned that you have to follow the same rules as if you were driving a car!  That surprised me.  I was also surprised one day when I was shopping in a local mall and heard American music being played. They seem to love American music and even know its history.  They weren't surprised that I didn't know French music and they have introduced me to some pretty good tunes!  The French are polite and formal in some ways, such as eating, and they are always wiping their feet before entering buildings.  They are obsessed with conserving electricity and water, and look at me funny when I used a lot of water to wash a pan.  The lights in the dormitory hallways are timed and turn off after two minutes of light. You must pay for grocery bags at the supermarket. But overall, the French are relaxed and know how to enjoy their time. 

You do, though, have one funny anecdote that reveals the French’s dislike of the Bush Administration.  Can you tell that anecdote?
About a week or two ago, the "governor" of this district in France (Acquitane) came to our headquarters.  Everyone gathered to hear the him speak.  He spoke fast and I couldn’t understand him, but towards the end of his talk I heard him say, “the Americans," and everyone laughed and turned to look at me.  Then my boss said to me, "okay Joseph?!" to which I responded "okay!" but I didn’t understand.  So after the governor’s talk I asked my friend to translate what he had said.  My friend said the governor had said that TWB is such a force for good in the world, with its emphasis on helping people, and that perhaps the American government (the Bush Administration) can take a lesson from TWB. 

Back in America, you started your own computer company. And at NJIT you work repairing computers. Can you discuss that?
I have my own small company, the Shore Computer Company, based in Point Pleasant, N.J.  I work alone or sometimes when I’m busy a friend helps me. We are a Geek Squad that fixes computers in the Jersey shore area.  It gives me supplemental cash and I get to practice my skills while giving people high quality service. I wish I made more money but I have to put my attention mainly on school and trying to finish. Also, at NJIT, I work for Computer Maintenance Facility (CMF), NJIT’s computer repair center, since that is what my computer company does and I like to help people who have computer problems.  

When did you first take an interest in computers?
When I was boy, my parents gave me a simple computer for Christmas. I figured out how to use BASIC to program the computer and how to make simple games. Ever since then, I was hooked. I’d tinker around and experiment on the family computer, about which my father was not too happy.  He'd be angry and worried I'd break it, but I was always able to fix anything I messed up.

When might you get sent out to a disaster zone and where would you most likely be sent?
In a month or so I might be sent to Africa, as they want me to get immunized for the yellow fever, which is prevalent there. Also, there is only one other intern there, and she happens to be from America as well (Oregon). I hope I do well on my first “mission.”  I love computer networking and really enjoy helping people who are in need, so wish me luck.  

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)