Cover Story: Crisis Communication: More Calls For Satellite

The English language is full of clich�s. One of these is, "it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good." Apparently conceived in the days of sailing ships, this truism simply means that one person’s misfortune is another person’s opportunity.

But the growing global demand for reliable communications, especially by agencies and governments charged with managing both natural and man-made disasters is no clich�. The ever-increasing level of worldwide misfortune is pushing more crisis managers to satellites, both for backup and regular communications business opportunities.

Satellite products and services are attractive for a number of reasons in crisis management situations. First, as learned from the tragic events of September 11, 2001, terrestrial communications are remarkably vulnerable to terrorist attack. In contrast, geosynchronous satellites 22,300 miles above the Earth’s surface are, to all intents, immune to the furies of man and terrestrial nature combined. Second, the reliability of satellites combined with advances in mobile uplink technology means that satellite connectivity could be carried in trucks and cars, briefcases and even satellite telephone handsets. Finally, advances in digital transmissions combined with the growing popularity of Internet Protocol (IP) data streams have combined to reduce user costs; both when it comes to acquiring earth station equipment and renting space segment.

This combination of reliability, portability and affordability is making satellite communications the system of choice for crisis managers in many different situations ranging from natural and man-made disasters to public safety and business communications.

When Nature Strikes, Satellites Respond

Despite the public’s current focus on man-made crises, the truth is that Mother Nature generates most day-to-day threats to humanity. Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and blizzards all shatter terrestrial telecom networks, leaving first responders, rescuers and the public scrambling for some form of communications.

Time and again, satellites have filled the gap. For instance, on January 26, 2001, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale devastated the industrial Indian state of Gujarat, killing more than 30,000 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. Among the casualties was the region’s terrestrial telecom network, with satellite mobile units offering the only way for stricken residents to contact the outside world. "We have a large FlexiDAMA/SkyIP network in India," says Richard McPhaden, vice president of marketing for the Canadian Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) equipment manufacturer, Polarsat. "After the earthquake struck, our equipment was virtually the only communications link out of this worst-hit area. Fortunately, it was mounted in a van, which survived the quake. We allowed local residents to make free two-minute phone calls so they could let their families know they survived."

When Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, it also swept away most of the state’s telephone service, which created a cellular network that was either inoperable or overloaded, and blew down radio towers, eliminating the use of radio communications. The only remaining network infrastructure existed through satellite technology. Since then, the Florida Division of Emergency Management has added a satellite communications system throughout the state that works so well, the department now uses it on virtually a daily basis, regardless of weather conditions.

In January 2003, wildfires burned throughout much of Australia, including the western half of the Australian city of Canberra. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and four Canberra residents lost their lives.

Not surprisingly, fire, police and medical communication networks were either badly damaged by the flames, or nonexistent in the fires’ more remote areas. This is why the Australian telecom Optus relied on Shiron Satellite’s SatFly trailer-mounted earth stations to provide communications in and out of the fire zones. "The SatFly is designed for rapid deployment," says Shaul Laufer, Shiron’s president and chief technology officer. "The trailer unit contains everything you need to establish high-speed satellite communications fast, including a fold-down satellite antenna, a generator, a Shiron InterSKY remote gateway satellite router, Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony equipment, a high- speed Wi-Fi gateway to allow access to Wi-Fi equipped remote users and as an option, two-way video- conferencing equipment. You just attach this trailer to a car or truck, drive up and deploy within minutes."

Coping With Terror, War And Homeland Security

If there was one positive element that came out of 9/11, it is that traditionally competitive federal, state and local first responders (police, fire and EMS) got serious about working together. Of course, this cooperation illustrated just how incompatible many public safety radio networks are with each other, and as the collapse of the World Trade Center with its many public safety transmitter sites proved, how vulnerable terrestrial networks are to terror attacks in general.

This is why many first responders turned to satellites to solve their communications problem, either as back ups to their existing terrestrial networks or as outright replacements. "The Fire Department of New York is just one of the public safety agencies who are using our Inmarsat Storm Global Area network terminals to provide 64 kbs back-up communications," says James McMillian, director of sales and marketing for EMS Technologies’ land mobile group.

Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) has provided satellite-based public safety radio since 1995 with its "Dispatch Radio" product. Designed to function as a traditional "push-to- talk" (PTT) technology, Dispatch Radio is aimed at first responders, utility crews, power companies and "anyone else who needs PTT communications," says Austin Comerton, MSV’s channel manager. "During the run-up to Y2K, it was the power companies who were demanding this service. Today, it is FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], state and local emergency operations groups. Many hospitals are also looking at Dispatch Radio in order to give them reliable communications after biological and chemical weapons attacks."

Meanwhile, the New Mexico State Police (NMSP) adopted EMS Technologies’ weatherproofed PDT-100 packet data terminal–which sits on a vehicle’s roof or hood–to provide primary voice and data communications for its 525 officers. The NMSP has 121,598 square miles of territory to cover–15 percent of it entirely without any terrestrial radio communications. The combination of the PDT-100s and Mobile Satellite Ventures’ MSAT 1 L-band/Ku-band satellite overhead solved the NMSP’s longstanding communications problems. "Moving to satellite radio has definitely improved enforcement operations and officer safety," says Major Randall Bertram, the NMSP’s chief of special operations. "This is a great improvement on the old way of doing things."

Satellite communications has also come to the forefront in Afghanistan and Iraq, aside from supporting military operations in the region. For example, three Raytheon-built satellite communications SUVs–dubbed "First Responders," in recognition of their primary public safety purpose–provide Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) aid workers with voice and data links to the outside world via satellite.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department purchased the First Responder to provide satellite links and interoperable communications for police, fire and EMS works on scene. It also helped provide communications during the Columbia recovery operation in Texas.

In turn, nine Bickford Broadcast Vehicle mobile satellite/interoperable radio SUVs–known as the Linx–have been purchased by the American Red Cross for deployment at emergencies throughout the United States. Meanwhile, the Naval Research Laboratories’ "InfraLynx"–which performs similar functions using a Hummer-platform–has already seen service at Ground Zero, the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, UT, and Super Bowl 37.

Meanwhile, SkyStream Networks is providing its Multiplex 20 video IP technology to "DREAMS." Short for the Disaster Response and Emergency Medical Services project, DREAMS allows paramedics to link directly via satellite to experts at major medical centers. This mobile satellite solution outfits ambulances with high-speed two-way videoconferencing. The concept, funded by the U.S. Army, offers possibilities for civilian and military medical care. For instance, "with DREAMS, paramedics can transmit a patient’s vital signs to hospitals while enroute," says Tom Sauer, SkyStream’s director of business development. "More importantly, paramedics will be able to administer levels of care that require a physician’s supervision, because that supervision and advice can be provided via two-way video/audio communication, along with vital statistic information. DREAMS can also be used by rural physicians, allowing them to do real-time patient consultations with major medical centers without having to leave their small-town offices."

Communications For Business And Government

First responders during natural disasters are not the only situations that benefit from satellite technology during times of crisis. Businesses and governments alike are increasingly turning to satellites for reliable communications.

Take Dow Jones and Co., publishers of The Wall Street Journal. What some call the bible of world financial news, The Wall Street Journal cannot afford to be waylaid by terrestrial land line failures or power outages. This is why Dow Jones relies on satellites to transmit its editions to printing plants around the United States, specifically over a VSATPlus 2 network provided by Polarsat. "This network was chosen by Dow Jones because of its redundant systems and back-up power sources, which ensure maximum reliability," says Polarsat’s Richard McPhaden. "This is why The Wall Street Journal continued to be distributed worldwide during the Great Blackout of 2003, when most other newspapers were shut down. In fact, having relied on VSATPlus 2 and our predecessor product, the Journal has not missed a printing day in more than 20 years of us providing service to Dow Jones."

On the morning of September 11, 2001, much of lower Manhattan’s terrestrial communication gridlocked. Federal Express for example, which already had a satellite network in place could not have continued operations without the aid of space-based products and services. Throughout that day, the executive management at Federal Express initiated a ground delivery strategy once the U.S. airspace was officially closed and relayed the new plan as well as corporate updates via satellite to all its employees.

Over in China, Polarsat installed a VSATPlus 2 network for the China Ministry of Railways. It helps share the data load on the Ministry of Railways (MOR’s) fiber optic network- -laid alongside much of China’s 44,750 miles of track, and serves as a back-up communications channel when the land-system fails. In addition, the MOR has built a satellite communications truck that delivers two-way voice, video and data via satellite, which also operates using VSATPlus 2. The truck is small enough to fit within a standard MOR freight car, which means that it can be carried by rail to wherever problems have occurred, no matter how remote the region.

Satellites And Crisis Management Go Together

The examples illustrate just how well suited satellite solutions are for solving crisis communications problems. There are no other options that provide a better combination of reliability, portability and affordability. The best news? As the world gets crazier, satellite communications will be the obvious antidote for anyone needing to stay in touch no matter what happens.

As Via Satellite’s senior contributing editor, James Careless has covered all aspects of the global satellite industry for more than six years.

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