Satellite Communications an Essential Tool for Emergency Management and Disaster Recovery

Disaster and Emergency Communications - Satellites are Key
Communications provide the critical path for relief in emergency and disaster situations. Communications connect and help move logistical, rescue and first responder resources in any region of the world facing or recovering from natural or man-made disasters.

Deploying wireless communications is typically among the first priorities in any emergency response, rescue, or relief situation. However, terrestrial wireless equipment (cellular phones or land mobile radios) is only useful when communications towers and other fixed equipment are in place to connect wireless equipment to the local and global communications backbone. In the majority of emergency situations, this infrastructure has either been destroyed by the disaster (e.g. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina) or was not available before the disaster (e.g. the earthquake in Pakistan). This reality makes it critical for local government and emergency workers to have access to a wireless communications network that is not dependant on terrestrial infrastructure.

Satellite communications provide such a solution. Satellites are the only wireless communications infrastructure not susceptible to damage from disasters, because the main repeaters sending and receiving signals (the satellite spacecraft) are located outside the Earth's atmosphere. In recent years, the cost of satellite bandwidth has dropped so dramatically it is competitive with both DSL and cable solutions. While the technology in years past would have been priced out of reach for many disaster recovery plans, this is no longer the case.

Users today have two kinds of satellite communications networks available to support emergency response activities: geostationary satellite systems (GEO) and low Earth orbit satellites (LEO).

Geostationary (GEO) satellites are located 36,000 km above the Earth in a fixed position and provide service to a country or a region covering up to one third of the globe. They are capable of providing a full range of communications services, including voice, video and broadband data. These satellites operate with ground equipment ranging from very large fixed gateway antennas down to mobile terminals the size of a cellular phone. There are currently almost 300 commercial GEO satellites in orbit operated by global, regional and national satellite carriers. This number does not include satellites operated by governments, the military, etc.

Even before disasters strike, these networks are used in many countries to provide seismic and flood-sensing data to government agencies to enable early warning of an impending situation. Also, they broadcast disaster-warning notices and facilitate general communication and information flow between government agencies, relief organizations and the public.

LEO satellites operate in orbits between 780 km and 1,500 km (depending on the system) and provide voice and low speed data communications. These satellites can operate with handheld units about the size of a large cellular phone. The highly portable nature of LEO-based units makes them another valuable satellite solution for first responders in the field. With the number of LEO satellites in operation, at any given time, a LEO satellite is above you.

In order to most effectively utilize the capabilities of these systems, government agencies, relief organizations and other first responders must define as far in advance as possible what kind of terminals they will need to have in the field before and after an emergency. This planning requires an understanding of the different capabilities of the various system types outlined below.

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Getting Equipped
Satellite technology can provide narrowband and broadband IP communications (Internet, data, video, or voice over IP) with speeds starting at 64 Kbps from handheld terminals up to 4 Mbps bi-directional from portable VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) antennas. Fixed installation can bring the bandwidth up to 40 Mbps. The operation of these satellite systems and services follows the general topology depicted below.

Solutions using this topology can be used for both advance disaster mitigation services and to support relief and recovery efforts under three general categories:

  1. Handheld Mobile Satellite Communications: Once a disaster has occurred, local infrastructure - including microwave, cellular and other communications facilities - are often knocked out, either because towers are destroyed, or because of electrical failures. In the immediate aftermath of such a disaster, there is one reliable form of communications, which is the use of handheld satellite telephone systems provided by mobile satellite service providers. These systems provide access through very small, cell-phone-sized devices, as well as pagers and in-vehicle units.
    Prices for satellite phones can be as low as $40 a week for rental, with purchase prices ranging from under $400 up to about $2,000. Services are provided on a per-minute basis, as with any mobile telephone system, and start under a dollar a minute.
  2. Portable and Transportable Mobile Satellite Communications: Mobile satellite systems, or terminals used for "communications on the move" include equipment that can be transported and operated from inside a car, truck or maritime vessel, as well as in helicopters and other aircraft, including commercial airplanes. This kind of terminal is useful where data-intensive, high-speed connections are needed on an expedited basis for damage assessment, medical evaluation or other applications for voice, video and data. Depending on the satellite system and type of equipment, they can be operational in anywhere from 5-30 minutes usually without expert technical staff, and can be deployed anywhere. As with communications systems in general, higher satellite terminal prices - whether they are portable, mobile or fixed - equate to more robust services, higher reliability, faster delivery and a wide range of other features and options.
  3. Fixed Satellite Communications: Fixed satellite communications terminals would typically be installed in cases where the equipment is required for longer than one week, including pre-disaster applications - e.g. environmental monitoring, communications redundancy, etc. - as well as post-disaster recovery operations. Such systems can be configured to provide everything from low-speed data transmissions up to very broad bandwidth data and full broadcast-quality video to replace local and national telecommunications infrastructure. Such systems must be installed by a qualified technical team.

Procuring Bandwidth, Integration & Other Services
There are a number of global satellite carriers operating fleets of geostationary satellites providing mostly fixed or portable communications, although some are also used for mobile services, including services on ships and aircraft. There are also a large number of regional and national satellite carriers providing fixed and portable services in Europe, North America, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Oceania. In addition, there are several operators of systems providing service to handheld satellite phones and pagers.

Users have a variety of choices for obtaining access to these satellite services. Handheld mobile satellites are the simplest, in keeping with the way the systems work. A user needs only to contact one of the many value added resellers to lease or buy the phone or other devices and sign a service contract. These companies are readily available through the Internet, and the units can be shipped on an expedited basis.

For portable and fixed VSAT services it is possible to either contact the satellite companies themselves, or work through one of the wide range of network integrators providing end-to-end communications services, including VSAT terminals and satellite bandwidth access, on either a global, regional or local basis. These companies are often registered with local telecommunications regulatory agencies. To access an interactive industry directory, go to www.gvf.org and click on "Members".

Advance Planning Is Key
As noted above, long-term advance planning for natural disaster mitigation can be supported by the use of satellite networks connecting seismic and other environmental sensors to local or national government agencies. Likewise, fully redundant communications networks supported by backup satellite solutions are one of the most effective means of assuring operational continuity throughout emergencies and disasters. Once a disaster is in view, or has struck, having communications equipment on-hand is critical. Planning to meet the recovery efforts needed for natural or other disasters thus must include advance purchases of equipment and service contracts for relief workers and others.


About the Author
David Hartshorn is Secretary General of the Global VSAT Forum (GVF). GVF is a non-profit industry association created to educate governments and enterprises about satellite communications worldwide. For more detailed information, or to discuss how to proceed to identify specific solutions, contact GVF or Mr. Hartshorn at: David.Hartshorn@gvf.org or www.gvf.org.

Andrea Maleter is Director, Satellite Communications, Futron Corp., www.futron.com.