Satellite is a Natural Fit for Disasters – Are You Prepared?

By Bill Pitz, VP Technology, IP Access International


Recent disasters across the United States, Mexico, and countless Caribbean islands have provided a sometimes painful reminder of just how dependent emergency and business operations are on telecommunications systems… and just how fragile those systems can be in the wake of serious disasters, whether natural or man-made.

No matter what your organization’s mission is, the time to evaluate your emergency/disaster communications plan is now — before the next disaster strikes.

Satellite-based Solutions Are a Natural Fit for Disaster Response and Recovery 

When local infrastructure is disrupted or damaged, satellite communications rely on a satellite spacecraft that is safely orbiting thousands of miles above the earth, and ground stations that are safely hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the affected disaster area. Cellular infrastructure is frequently flooded, burned, or otherwise damaged. Portable cellular infrastructure can be brought in, but this takes time and access to affected areas can sometimes be limited for days or even weeks. Even when cellular infrastructure is restored, capacity can be limited and/or overwhelmed by the number of users in the area. When Internet and backhaul links are still offline, everyone in the area will be relying on their mobile device to communicate instead of the normal distribution between cellular, WiFi, and wired connections. It’s also quite likely that there will be a large number of additional people in the area assisting with recovery efforts. In addition to conventional first responder agencies (who will soon begin to have access to dedicated cellular capacity for such purposes), there will be hundreds or even thousands of other users in the area — insurance claims teams, humanitarian relief organizations, cleanup and construction crews, to name a few. These will all place additional burden on an already taxed cellular infrastructure. Satellite avoids all of the local infrastructure and bottlenecks.

Following each incident this year, we received countless calls from existing and new customers looking for anything and everything we could possibly supply to reconnect their operations with the outside world. The first requests typically come from agencies providing the first and second tier of response to the incident. These are followed quickly by governments and businesses trying to bring their operations back online — everything from state and municipal governments to insurance companies, airlines, and retail chains. In areas that are particularly hard-hit (as Puerto Rico was this year), electric power and terrestrial communications systems can be offline for days, weeks, or even months.

As disaster after disaster struck, we began seeing the supply of equipment tighten up. This included everything from handheld satellite phones to full-size VSAT antennas. Like most other network operators, we scoured every corner of our warehouses and offices to locate every possible piece of equipment that could be loaned, sold, or rented. By the time Puerto Rico was struck for the second time, most inventory was depleted and the majority of equipment manufacturers were quoting lead times of 4 to 6 weeks.

While the level of demand experienced by the satcom market was unprecedented, we have every reason to believe that this will become the new normal in the wake of significant disasters. With each passing year, more and more infrastructure is critically dependent on communication links and the potential impact of a disaster increases with each new dependency.

In order to be prepared and avoid supply issues (and even price gouging in some unfortunate cases), it is critical that organizations evaluate communications requirements following a disruptive disaster. Satellite communications can provide a rapidly deployable solution to immediate communication needs, but it is important to consider just what your needs are. While just about anything is possible, the first thing to remember is that satellite links are going to be significantly more expensive than terrestrial-based solutions. This means looking very carefully at bandwidth requirements for critical vs. non-critical applications. It typically helps to break up disaster response into phases:

Phase 1 – Immediate Response

The requirements here are typically for basic voice and text communications, perhaps with some small data for e-mail and the like. This role is typically best filled by handheld satellite phones or small portable MSS systems such as BGAN. These systems are ultra-portable, easily carried in a backpack and powered by batteries, solar panels, or very small generators. Their bandwidth, however, is very limited and both voice and data services become very expensive for long-term use.

Questions to ask:

When do we begin Phase 1? This will vary by organization (first responders, for instance, answer “immediately,” while others may have their timeline influenced by evacuation orders and organizational requirements).

How many users do we need to support in our Phase 1 response?

What do these users absolutely need in order to assure their safety and ability to carry out the mission?

How much capability will these users have to bring the required communications equipment? (This determines what needs to be staged locally, in advance, vs. what can be physically brought in after the disaster).

Phase 2 – Recovery

In this phase the organization begins looking to recover operations. Electric power typically arrives in the form of temporary generators, or perhaps limited utility restoration. In this phase it makes sense to bring in conventional VSAT assets such as flyaway VSAT antennas, mobile command centers/trailers, etc. These larger systems are able to supply larger amounts of bandwidth to support additional users and additional applications like ERP, GIS mapping, and more frequent use of voice services.

Questions to ask:

When do we expect to begin Phase 2?

What resources will we be able to physically access or relocate during Phase 2?

How many users will we need to support, and what do they need to do? (Answer this question very carefully – most initial requests we see fall more into the “wish list” category than a well thought out list of critical requirements. Remember, this is not the time for streaming movies and transferring enormous files.)

How long do we anticipate having such a requirement? (In answering this question, it is extremely important to consider the geographical areas in question. If the area has a history of slow restoration of electric power or prolonged outages of cellular or other terrestrial infrastructure, that needs to be considered.)

In areas that are likely to experience prolonged recovery periods, there may be a significant advantage to utilizing multiple tiers of communications technologies as it becomes easier to move in and out of the affected area.

The Bottom Line

No matter what your organization’s mission is, the time to evaluate your emergency/disaster communications plan is now — before the next disaster strikes. IP Access is available to help you craft a solution that meets your specific requirements, ranging from your own cache of equipment stored on-site to preventative maintenance programs to turn-key rental solutions.