New times, new tools

Mission Aviation Fellowship takes off on info superhighway

by Lee Cuesta

“Our real commitment was to try to keep the gap between the have’s and the have-nots from getting larger,” states Galen Hiestand as he explains the strategy that undergirds MAFLink, the electronic, communications service provided by Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). While serving as senior advisor to the Information Technology (IT) division of MAF, Hiestand helped guide the development of MAFLink so that it would deliver affordable access and service to national churches and missionaries where such service was unavailable previously. In this way, they hoped to bridge the growing ‘technology gap.’
With MAFLink, “we’re trying to provide access to those people in remote areas,” says Paul Lay, assistant director of MAF’s IT division, and director of marketing for MAFLink. The most significant way that this is achieved is through the service known as MAFtel, one of MAFLink’s three components. This is “the non-wired service of MAFLink,” according to Hiestand, which utilizes HF and VHF radio technology, as well as a direct uplink to a satellite, called “Planet One.” MAFtel “provides the connection to those that are beyond the copper, where the copper (i.e., telephone cable) stops,” Lay says.
As a global partner with a company called Comsat, MAF provides the satellite phones and helps get the user established on the service. Lay explains that the Planet One unit is very portable, roughly the size of a laptop computer. Each unit costs about $3,000, and then calls are charged at the rate of three dollars per minute. Currently, MAF has over one-hundred Planet One satellite phones in use on various fields around the world. One recipient of this service recently wrote:
“My family and I are tentmaking in a central country in Asia, and have purchased a Planet One satellite phone through MAF. The satellite phone has been such a blessing, as we can now send and receive e-mail wherever we want. It has been an additional blessing as we have trained our national counterparts to use the phone. While we have been here in the states on furlough, we have been able to keep in contact with those we work with and answer questions as they come up. In areas where other means of communication are limited, the satellite phone is a great option. I highly recommend it to anyone in a situation similar to ours.”
“The beauty of the satellite phone,” Lay observes, “is that...from the middle of the jungle somewhere, you’ve got voice contact with your home church, or hook up your laptop to it and send e-mail...and a fax machine can be plugged into it.” The benefit of this technology, in other words, is that no missionary or national worker need be denied a communications connection, regardless of whether a telephone line is available.
Where there is a phone line available, a second component of MAFLink, called MAFnet, provides “a private e-mail network for Christian groups,” according to MAF’s website, located at <>. MAFnet utilizes a “store-and-forward” message service along with a network of local hubs in over 28 locations such as Madagascar, Uganda, Venezuela and Burkina Faso. MAFnet may also be accessed via MAFtel’s wireless service.
In addition to providing “connection,” Lay says, MAFLink also furnishes “community and visibility” through its third component, called MAFxc. MAFxc is a member association, rather than an on-line service, that offers e-mail conferences and forwarding along with distance learning, and also hosts web pages. When a member addresses a message to a conference, it is received by each person who has subscribed to that particular conference. Lay points out that this technology differs from “live chat,” which requires a live, Internet connection. “And a lot of the places MAFLink is serving don’t have that luxury, yet they can still participate in this community,” he says. Once again, MAFLink bridges the ‘technology gap.’
Schools can utilize this feature for distance learning. For example, Hope International University (formerly Pacific Christian College), located in Fullerton, California, “is running two, fully accredited masters level courses using this tool,” according to Lay. The students are located in approximately fifteen countries. Alan Rabe, director and professor of international development at Hope, says that MAFxc “is exactly what we need and has really served our purpose.” As a result, the accreditation committee commended Hope University “for its innovative approach to fulfilling its mission and serving a worldwide audience (via ‘on-line instruction’) that might otherwise lack access to advanced training and education.” Furthermore, MAFxc hosts the web sites of over 120 organizations, thereby enhancing their “visibility.” All of these sites may be accessed simply by visiting MAFxc’s web page, located at <>.
MAFxc is the same service that was originally called “CrossConnect,” provided by the International Christian Media Commission (ICMC). Acquiring it was part of a process at MAF that began “in the fall of 1994,” according to Hiestand. Some of the technicians who were assisting ICMC, such as Jonathan Marsden and Bob Sutterfield, also came to MAF.
MAFLink arose from a need that was identified by JAARS, a division of Wycliffe. Missionaries were coming to JAARS bases and asking to use their e-mail service. But JAARS leaders did not feel called to provide service for the entire missions community; so they met with MAF leaders in December, 1994. “That was a critical visit; in fact, it really turned everything at MAF,” Hiestand says. Hiestand himself joined the MAF staff in May, 1995 (a position that lasted two-and-a-half years), in order to advise them “regarding the appropriate ways in which to implement this technology within the missions community and the national church.”
Indeed, by adding information technology to aviation, MAF now stands on two legs, rather than just one, in its ability to serve missions and the church. MAF’s purpose statement now adds the words “and other strategic technologies” to “aviation” as the means to multiply the church’s effectiveness in remote locations. “For fifty years, we’ve really been in the delivery business,” says Lay, “delivering hope, the gospel, education, and so on. And the airplane was the tool. It was also a delivery system for communication. Yet the airplane is expensive. Now this new technology has come along and we’ve added it (to deliver communication), without using the airplane.”

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Copyright © 1998 by Lee Cuesta

This article was written on assignment for Pulse, and was published on May 1, 1998.