Establishing Communications After A Disaster

Saint Joseph Seminary College, a small Roman Catholic undergraduate institution in St. Benedict, La., celebrated its 115th commencement this year. But for its communications infrastructure, it was like opening day.

As a result of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the Northshore, where Saint Joseph Seminary college is located, suffered serious flooding. The most basic of essentials, such as electricity, water, sewerage, telephone and cellular services were hard hit. The College became completely isolated when all infrastructure was destroyed by fallen trees. Even though power was mostly restored to the region within a month or so after Katrina hit, telephone lines remained down for most people in the area until the end of the year. For its communications, the College normally would connect to the Internet using a T-1 line, and its telephone system would also use a T-1 line through a PRI card connecting to a Vodavi 9000. But in the midst of all the hurricane destruction, Saint Joseph faced several communication challenges. The college had emergency generators to provide power, but it could not operate without a connection to the Internet and the ability to communicate with the outside world. If the college were to cancel classes for the remainder of the semester or wait until communications had been restored to normal activity, students would lose the corresponding credits.

It became the responsibility of Jim Beck, Director of IT, to find a solution that would provide the basic communication needs that would permit the college to remain open and continue operations.

Beck shared with Satellite Business Solutions Managing Editor Julie Samuel his insight on how to re-establish communications after a disaster strikes.

PROBLEM: Restoring Campus Communications Rapidly To Resume Normal Activity.

With 200 to 300 Internet and phone users on campus — including students, faculty and monks — restoring communications rapidly was crucial, but there was no evident solution. “The Internet is very critical," says Beck. "We have online classes. We have connections to other seminary colleges and we do distance learning."

Restoring both voice and broadband communication in a timely, affordable and reliable manner was the goal. So Beck contacted people he knew would be available in this time of crisis and asked for recommendations.

This is where Unasat, a wholesale satellite service provider, and Skyvista, one of its satellite dealers/resellers, came in.

SOLUTION: Installing Satellite Terminals On Site.

Within days of the storm there were two satellite receivers installed on campus. One was used to connect to the Internet and provided a 5 mbps downstream and 768Kbps upstream. The other connection was used with a special Cisco router configured by the engineers at Unasat to interface with the seminary’s PRI card to provide phone service.

Within a week of the storm the college was able to make and receive phone calls and access the Internet at faster speeds than their normal systems provided, says Beck.

After landlines were restored, the College put Unasat on standby and pays the satellite provider a monthly fee to be available. At the end of this year, when the College’s contract with its phone provider ends, “we will probably move the Internet permanently to satellite but we will keep the phones on the land lines so we don’t have the lag. But we have satellite back-up for both of them. So if there was a hurricane tomorrow, within 5 minutes the entire site can switch over to phones and Internet through satellite.”

Saint Joseph Abbey and Seminary College also offered its facilities to the students, faculty and staff from New Orleans’ Notre Dame Seminary, moving 250 people onto the Saint Joseph campus. Both schools operated concurrently throughout the remainder of the fall semester.

“We only had two satellite connection outages, but both times we were back up within 20 minutes or less,” Beck says. “Technical support is absolutely superb.”

Jim Beck

Jim Beck
Director of Information Technology,
Saint Joseph Seminary College

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