Latest News

Satellite Telephony: A Vital Link

By | January 10, 2001

      by Peter J. Brown

      Wars and natural disasters strike this planet far too frequently, leaving thousands of victims in their wakes. Satellite technology is vital to the mission of those dedicated people who take on the delicate task of trying to reassemble and restore abruptly shattered lives. Satellites are always hovering high overhead, and ready to move the process forward so that lives torn apart can be put back together.

      When the first teams arrive on the scene of any major disaster or substantial humanitarian relief effort, you can bet that the satellite gear is stowed close at hand. It is their lifeline, their prized link to the outside world, and often their only means of maintaining contact. Sure, shortwave radio has its place, too. Yet the satellite-based system is replacing the radio mast as the preferred way of establishing a reliable two-way tie with headquarters.

      The satellite industry’s response to the needs of the disaster relief and emergency services sector is really no different than its response to other customer’s needs. The satellite industry’s contribution to worldwide relief and aid efforts is a robust, reliable and easy-to-operate communications platform that goes everywhere, regardless of whatever harsh conditions are encountered.

      Radical New Solutions

      At Guildford, U.K.-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), the $40 million Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) is taking shape. It consists of five micro-satellites. Algeria and the British government have stepped forward to announce acquisitions of the first two DMC satellites.

      The objective of the DMC is to ensure that, in the event of an emergency, adversely impacted countries who are participating can look forward to revisit times by remote sensing micro-satellites, weighing 50-plus kilograms, once every 24 hours instead of once every 10 to 12 days. Each satellite offers 36-meter resolution via images captured from 425-mile (686-kilometer) polar orbits.

      “This is a deployment of low-cost remote sensing technology in an application that we have never seen before,” says Jeffrey Ward, SSTL’s managing director. “This very high temporal resolution at only medium spatial resolution does not represent any great leap in technology, although it is revolutionary at the systems level.”

      The work on DMC constitutes the latest in a series of SSTL nano-, mini- and micro- sats. What is equally remarkable about the DMC is the way in which SSTL is demonstrating its ability to orchestrate multinational projects based on a unique set of collective customer needs.

      Five ground stations will make up the DMC ground segment, and each will conduct satellite monitoring, control and earth observation data reception. The rapid provision of visually intelligible imagery to the user communities and service providers is a top priority. Each ground station will be equipped with a pre-processing system, while a centralized constellation mission planning system (CCMPS) will ensure that high priority user requests are treated as such, based on constellation usage rules. The CCMPS will provide instructions to both spacecraft and ground stations via the Internet.

      “The service providers will interface with the end-user community for request handling, and for the provision of additional information or data products. Reuters Foundation is anticipated as the main service provider for disaster relief agencies through its Alertnet facility,” says Ward. “Commercial and educational exploitation of the data within the United Kingdom will also be assessed throughout the DMC mission lifetime.”

      Small organizations and small satellites can have a huge impact on disaster relief and aid-related activities in general.

      At Virginia-based Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA), for example, Gary Garriott, director of informatics, says that VITA’s LEO-based store-and-forward e-mail satellite technology (see is being deployed around Africa with good results thus far. He notes that store-and-forward e-mail satellites typically operate in polar orbits, thus covering all points on the Earth at least four times per day. These “passes” allow messages to be picked up or dropped off by the satellite to all terminals. Special gateway stations hand off messages to and from the Internet.

      “While this satellite system does not immediately fit into a direct disaster relief mode, relief agencies and affected governments might still be interested in using it during the recovery phase in particular. Instant telecommunications often shifts the focus of decision-making away from the field,” Garriott says.

      He points out that VITA’s satellite system assisted in coordinating responses to the 1997 Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo). With relief workers increasingly at higher personal risk than in the past, portable LEO satellite technology could also be useful as a back-up security apparatus.

      Garriott indicated that VITA has been working closely with UNICEF (United Nations Children Fund) on strategies surrounding their “office-in-a-box” flyaway packages for disaster relief scenarios. Strategies include internal training opportunities and methodologies as well as user-friendly functional profiles of hardware and associated systems.

      UNICEF–and possibly other United Nations (UN) agencies–are also seeking U.S. government funding for non-governmental agencies like VITA, which would supply expertise in the form of personnel to operate this equipment. Scandinavian countries already provide this funding, according to Garriott.

      “This has been proposed as a public-private partnership, so private interest would be useful,” says Garriott.

      Unhcr Depends On Satellite Technology

      As head of telecommunications for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) based in Geneva, Jay Rushby is constantly looking for new ideas from the satellite industry that can help his far-flung organization better meet the challenges they face. He will no doubt be watching SSTL’s progress closely. Another new satellite platform that might generate surprising results for this global entity is Worldspace.

      In the past, UNHCR has been heavily dependent upon Intelsat C-band DAMA feeds to link its operations to headquarters using numerous VSATs deployed around the world. C-band service still serves as the workhorse, but the UNHCR recently started to use Eutelsat Ku-band services in Kosovo. At the same time, while continuing to use VSATs for two-way communications, UNHCR is engaged in a pre-pilot test of the Worldspace multicast service. This entails using the Afristar satellite to broadcast Web-based UNHCR Intranet content to remote terminals.

      “Worldspace offers us a very high quality 64 kbps broadcast platform with very low error rates. We are testing Hitachi terminals equipped with detachable antennas, although short Yagi antennas for a fixed site is an option as well,” Rushby says.

      With Worldspace’s Special PC Adapter (SPCA), a laptop can be hooked up to the terminal via an RS-232 port. Relief workers at remote sites in Africa can receive the updates as zip files beamed by UNHCR via Worldspace. Worldspace offers an extremely reliable, affordable and portable one-way broadcast solution, according to Rushby. The fact that the Afristar satellite allows UNHCR to reach sites throughout Africa, and in much of Western Europe, the Middle East and the Indian region, makes the platform even more attractive.

      In addition to approximately 300+ Inmarsat terminals deployed worldwide, UNHCR has a satellite network using HNS PES two-way VSATs linked via an Intelsat DAMA satellite feed that originates from the former Swisscom Satellite Network Access Point (SNAP) in Leuk, Switzerland–now owned by Verestar.

      “We cannot get away from using Inmarsat for emergency response, but we are looking for lower-cost alternatives for our longer term needs. For Africa, we are considering the use of a Ku-band feed on Eutelsat’s W4 satellite, but the back link reaches only to southern Spain,” Rushby says.

      “We are trying to change the paradigm at this point. Now, instead of running data through voice channels, we are putting voice through 64 kbps data channels as we do with DAMA. Using Nortel Networks’ 4430 routers, for example, we can offer in-band voice, which is far more practical and bandwidth efficient than running data out-of-band with all the inherent problems in the modem pool,” adds Rushby, who anticipates an increasing demand for data bandwidth at UNHCR in the future.

      On Land And Sea

      U.K.-based Inmarsat Ltd.’s new Global Area Network (GAN) solution–often referred to as the M4–is having an enormous impact on a wide range of mobile users.

      “In just a few hours, you can set up a complete mobile command center. You can plug your routers and PBX switchboard right into the M4. It not only makes it easier to operate a mobile network, but Inmarsat’s spotbeam technology has also reduced per minute costs by 25 percent,” says Deborah Bounds, government systems manager at Virginia Beach-based Landsea Systems Inc.

      Bounds points out that Inmarsat hardware manufacturer Thrane and Thrane, for example, has taken the robustness and light weight of the M4 and added another attractive feature: a magnesium alloy casing for the transceiver, which better protects this portable unit from any unexpected hits.

      “I find the most attractive feature of the Inmarsat M4–whether it is a Thrane or a Nera or anybody else’s–is the ‘plug and play’ ability of the unit. Not only is the M4 versatile and flexible, allowing the user to set up a mobile command post in one application, and send video footage back to headquarters in the next application, but it can interface with a lot of equipment without special cables or gyrations on the part of the user in order to get set up,” Bounds says.

      Given its global coverage, it is easy to understand why large relief organizations such as the UN, the International Red Cross, and Oxfam are so heavily dependent upon Inmarsat.

      “Our Mini-M phone is the bedrock of emergency communications because of its small size and global reach. Handhelds such as those offered by other operators present aid agencies a challenge from the standpoint of coverage. Relief agencies cannot legislate where emergencies will happen,” says James Collett, Inmarsat’s marketing manager for government and aid agencies.

      Inmarsat’s commitment to disasters at sea is embodied in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Inmarsat is a world leader in communications at sea. With the completion of the transition of Inmarsat to the private sector, a new organization known as the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) is now charged with an oversight role, and in this capacity it monitors all of Inmarsat’s public service obligations.

      Inmarsat A, B and C ship earth station terminals are all recognized by the GMDSS. Among other things, the Inmarsat A and B provide a distress priority telephone and telex service to and from rescue coordination centers, along with the capability for sending pre-formatted distress messages to a rescue coordination center, and the Safetynet service.

      Among the features of the Inmarsat C maritime mobile satellite system is Enhanced Group Call (EGC). Safetynet is an EGC service which is recognized by the GMDSS as a primary way to issue alerts and other maritime safety information to designated groups of vessels at sea via satellite. Worldwide maritime safety information broadcasts, including high seas weather warnings and warnings generated by the International Ice Patrol, are just two aspects of Safetynet. Another ECG service is called Fleetnet. It is a commercial satellite-based messaging service.

      While Inmarsat A and B ship earth stations require relatively large gyro-stabilized antennas, the antenna size and the entire equipment package for Inmarsat C is much smaller. This provides a complete safety at sea communications capability to commercial and recreational vessels as small as 10 to 15 meters in length, according to Carl A. Sederquist, president of Quest Telecom International, LLC in Ellsworth, ME.

      “The beauty of Inmarsat C equipment is that it is relatively small, lightweight, and costs much less than an Inmarsat A or B. However, it is only for store-and-forward text messaging, including e-mail,” says Sederquist. “When you receive an alert via Safetynet, you can be alerted by an audible or visual indicator. Or if you are connected, it will produce either a printout or be viewable on a CRT (cathode ray tube). These last two are dedicated to GMDSS operations.”

      As noted earlier, the UN has multiple humanitarian aid and disaster relief-related responsibilities in a framework made up of numerous agencies. For example, the UN Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) has tapped Norwegian telecom giant Telenor to provide a six-site VSAT network–possibly expanding to 12 sites quickly–linking Palestinian refugee communities in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Montreal-based NSI Communication Systems Corp.’s VSAT Plus 2 is the selected VSAT solution for this UNWRA project.

      This is a full mesh network with voice that includes the option of adding a broadcast IP overlay later via Eutelsat’s W3 satellite at 7 degreesE.

      “In addition to the VSAT Plus 2, Telenor is tapping our FlexiDAMA product to establish LAN to LAN interconnects,” says Ron Mankarious, NSI’s vice president of marketing.

      China’s Ministry of Railways is also pursuing a satellite overlay-based strategy for disaster recovery using the same VSAT solution in 15 to 20 sites with 45 more sites to be hooked up in the near future, according to Mankarious.

      “This is for administrative traffic only, and not railway traffic control. It is all DAMA with a 2 Mbps videoconference on demand. The requirement for such high video quality is unusual,” Mankarious says. “In general, people are waking up to the fact that DAMA offers a much more compelling solution than fixed circuits for these types of recovery and restoration applications in particular.”

      High Marks For Handhelds

      Earlier this year, when British adventurer Alexandra Pratt of Cornwall attempted to retrace the 1905 canoe expedition route of Canadian Mina Hubbard from Labrador to northern Quebec with a single guide, she quickly discovered why Globalstar’s technology appeals to so many people who frequent very remote and isolated areas of the world.

      “This route had not been explored in 95 years,” said Pratt, who followed trails and portage routes used for decades by the Innu people who once inhabited this area. “This is one of the most remote parts of Canada, and I would not have embarked on this journey without a satellite phone,” said Pratt.

      She added that she was able to beam a progress report back to contacts in the United Kingdom, who then proceeded to post this information on the expedition Web site at While heading up the Nascaupi River, Pratt’s guide suffered a knee injury and was immobilized. Pratt used her Globalstar phone to call for help, and 30 hours later, the two explorers were evacuated by helicopter.

      “The advantage of the satellite phone instead of an emergency beacon is that not only could we give our rescuers our precise coordinates, but we could also relay our physical condition,” said Pratt. “At the same time, we were made aware of the fact that more than 80 forest fires were raging in the region. The importance of this ability to receive updates about dangerous circumstances in our immediate vicinity cannot go unmentioned.”

      Small Companies Play Important Roles

      Providing transportable earth stations and offering technical support are the primary specialties of Shephardstown, WV-based Chesapeake Satellite Inc. (CSI)

      “Many times both are required to satisfy a customer’s needs. This is never more critical and apparent than in the area of disaster recovery,” says Peter Ackermann, CSI’s senior engineer, adding that CSI’s annual percentage of total labor for this type of activity can range anywhere from 25 to 80 percent.

      The seasonal nature of extremely bad weather constitutes the delta in this instance, according to Ackermann, and the response time has to be immediate if not sooner.

      “An excellent example of this was when one of our primary customers contacted CSI to provide a transportable earth station for one of their customers in the Bahamas. Apparently a major storm had destroyed their microwave tower and communications had to be re-established post haste,” Ackermann says. “A transportable was the obvious choice for a restoration vehicle, given the circumstances.”

      Weather is not the only culprit. Armed conflict takes a heavy toll on infrastructure, and satellite gear is not often spared in the process. A recent response to just such a scenario by CSI involved sending a field engineer to Venezuela in order to repair and restart a major earth station.

      “The local customer was the PTT. This site had been bombed by the air force as part of an unsuccessful coup. We were able to repair the damaged antenna, to bring the whole system back on line and to restore traffic in short order,” Ackermann says.

      When Hurricane Hugo swept through the Caribbean several years ago, Ackermann was the first non-military specialist to get onto the island of St. Thomas. He was there to repair the main antenna for the island’s phone service–the customer was St. Thomas St. Juan Telco–as well as restore vital communications links between the island and the mainland.

      “Our files are filled with disaster relief and recovery projects for customers like the U.S. government, Loral Cyberstar, Eutelsat, Panamsat and Fox. For many, autumn and winter spell a lull in activities. At CSI, it is a time to regroup and prepare for the next round,” Ackermann says. “People rely on these communications for their very existence. Although at times hectic and dangerous, it is a very satisfying role, and we are proud to be involved in it.”

      Satellite technology plays a decisive role in the realm of emergency communications and disaster prevention, relief and recovery. Easy to transport and able to provide video, voice and data to any site on the map, satellite platforms are part of the master response plan, almost without exception. Indeed, the mere sight of an satellite dish on an otherwise devastated landscape can only mean one thing. If the emergency personnel and recovery teams are not there already, help is surely on the way.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

      Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

      Leave a Reply