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Help Is on the Way: Via Satellite

By | March 1, 2002

      By James Careless

      “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” In modern English, what this old cliché means is that something good usually comes out of every tragedy.

      In the case of the World Trade Center (WTC)/Pentagon attacks, for instance, it’s the disaster recovery sector that’s benefited. In fact, talk to satellite companies who cover this turf–from VSAT suppliers through SNG providers to maritime phone providers–and they’ll tell you that business since September 11th has been brisk. “There was a considerable increase in international Inmarsat and Comsat commercial communications traffic providing coverage of Washington, DC, and New York City following the terrorist incidents,” says Tom Surface, a spokesman for Telenor Satellite Services (TSS). Formerly Comsat Mobile Communications, TSS provides mobile satellite communications services, via Inmarsat, for disaster relief and recovery operations.

      “The increase was due in large part to enormous demands placed on the terrestrial networks and physical damage to the infrastructure,” he explains. “This was driven by the unique needs of disaster recovery operations, including coordination of aid, search and rescue, emergency services, media coverage of the disasters, and morale and welfare communications.”

      Surface’s comments are echoed by Ken Ravenna, vice president of Landsea Systems. Landsea provides satellite telephone communications in unserved areas, including worldwide voice, fax, data, ISDN, and videoconferencing over Thrane and Thrane equipment.

      “Demand for our products has increased tremendously since the unfortunate events of 9/11,” Ravenna says. “The growth has been both on increased usage of airtime, and extra equipment to support this traffic in the short term.”

      Recent Recovery Efforts

      Understandably, the disaster recovery sector’s recent efforts have been focused on New York City. For instance, “in partnership with Quantum Prime Communications, a network of our mobile equipment was set up for the American Red Cross,” says Ron Mankarious, vice president of marketing at NSI Communications. NSI supplies VSAT equipment that uses DAMA (Demand Assigned Multiple Access) and BoD (Bandwidth on Demand) technologies to automatically allocate back-up lines over satellite to its customers. “This truck-mounted system was brought to ground zero to allow rescuers to hook up their phones, and to get broadband communications for their computers where there were no communications.”

      Meanwhile, Immeon Networks LLC was selected by the New York State Insurance Fund (NYSIF) when it lost all data communications and some voice links after the 9/11 attack. Immeon is a joint venture between Viasat Inc. and Loral Skynet that provides broadband on demand via satellite to businesses, including those affected by the WTC attacks.

      Based in Lower Manhattan, the NYSIF’s 1,300 employees were forced to relocate for two weeks following the attack. Once things settled down, the fund–which is a not-for-profit agency of the State of New York–said “never again.” To avoid 9/11-style chaos, the NYSIF decided it needed a back-up communications pipeline. Its solution was to choose Immeon’s broadband on demand service. Within days, a satellite antenna was perched on the NYSIF’s rooftop across from the WTC site.

      “Immeon was an easy choice for us,” says NYSIF data communications specialist Chris Glorius. “They are the only satellite-based back-up service that offers peer-to-peer connectivity on a pay-by-the-minute basis. They matched our requirements exactly when others fell short.”

      Of course, not all 9/11 disaster recovery efforts happened in the United States. As air strikes began, satellite technology for disaster recovery emerged in Afghanistan as well.

      A case in point: Swe-Dish Satellite Systems, which makes both fly-away and drive-away satellite terminals, is working with Ericsson Response and Telia to provide communications support to the UN’s World Food Program (WPF) in Afghanistan.

      “Ericsson is providing a GSM base station and a six meter antenna in the center of Kabul,” says Ulf Lindbolm, Swe-Dish Satellite Systems’ Defense Sector sales manager. “Swe- Dish is providing–free of charge–the satellite terminal, while the Swedish operator Telia is providing the downlink.” Actually, “lifeline” is a more accurate term. Without satellite-backed communications, the WPF would be hard-pressed to provide effective relief in Afghanistan.

      Meanwhile, Landsea has been providing automatic tracking of U.S. military aircraft, Humvees and personnel during the recent crisis. “We don’t offer detailed specifics on customers because of our commitment to discretion,” says Landsea’s Ravenna. “However, satellite phones are used to send ‘damage video,’ plus e-mail communications, family linking (where relatives use the satellite phone to call family in the field), [as well as] send faxes for supplies and to communicate between field units and their headquarters.”

      Beyond Terrorism And War

      As massive as it is, 9/11 relief is only part of the satellite industry’s work in disaster recovery.

      In fact, long before the events of that horrendous day, firms like NSI were making life-and-death differences.

      Take the January 26th, 2001, earthquake in the province of Gujarat, India. At 7.9 on the Richter scale, this quake was the worst to hit the region since 1819. The casualty list in 2001 included 19,727 people dead and 166,000 injured. Meanwhile, the province’s infrastructure was smashed.

      As fate would have it, NSI had already sold some of its emergency satellite equipment to GNFC, an Indian VSAT provider. Installed in a communications truck, this equipment was immediately dispatched to Bhuj, a city of one million that had been at the quake’s epicenter. With the local landline network in ruins, the GFNC van became “the only communication link (voice and data) to Bhuj,” says Mankarious. “The Chief Minister talked to the disaster area over this link.”

      NSI also helped set up two makeshift “telephone booths,” one in Bhuj, and the other in nearby Bhachau. “At first we thought we would just help coordinate relief efforts,” says Malev Mehta, head of NSI’s operations in Ahmadabad, some 200 miles away. “But when we saw the people with no other way of communicating with their loved ones, we made it free to the public.” GFNC and NSI charged nothing for the service, which relayed 10,000 messages to the outside world in just two days. Soon after, the company set up 10 more telephone downlink sites in the stricken area to aid the recovery effort.

      TSS is also committed to disaster recovery: even–like NSI–when those efforts are made at its own expense. For instance, after the devastating August 17, 1999, earthquake in Izmet, Turkey, which registered 7.4 on the Richter scale, TSS “established contact with its Turkish company, Comsat Turkey, to assess requirements for emergency communications for recovery and relief efforts,” says TSS’ Surface. “After we learned what needed to be done, Comsat distributed Planet 1 satellite phones to local organizations to assist the victims in locating and contacting family members in other parts of the country. The phone calls were free to the victims and were made over the Inmarsat satellite system.”

      Another humanitarian example comes from Viasat. It sells VSAT systems to customers who are building their own network back-up systems, as well as running Immeon jointly with Loral Skynet.

      “Bcom, a satellite services provider based in Beirut, Lebanon, has provided a network connecting sites maintained by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),” says Viasat director of marketing Bruce Rowe. “Built using a Viasat Skylinx telecommunications network, the new Bcom network helps the UNHCR manage the movement of people caused by manmade natural catastrophes, be it anything from climate changes to political turmoil.”

      Where The Opportunities Lie

      These days, sales opportunities in the disaster recovery sector abound. In fact, “after September 11th, they can be found anywhere in the world where people want to be prepared,” says Rainer Kurz, ND Satcom’s sales manager. Based in Germany, ND Satcom is one of Europe’s largest suppliers of satellite network and ground station solutions. When it comes to disaster recovery, ND Satcom specializes in VSAT equipment that can be rapidly deployed by helicopter.

      In December 2001, ND Satcom won a contract with Papua New Guinea to establish a national satellite-based communications network. Designed with an eye to managing natural disasters, the network will consist of one central earth station, three mobile units, and six portable field units. It will be operated by the Papua New Guinea Defence Forces, and will provide secure voice/data communications across this nation of islands.

      Meanwhile, Viasat’s Skylinx technology will soon be the backbone of Spain’s back-up and disaster recovery network. “The disaster recovery network in Spain serves 52 provinces,” explains Viasat’s Rowe. “Each provincial capital has a Civil Protection Services office where the terminals and 1.2 meter antennas will be installed. Meanwhile, a 4.5 meter Viasat antenna will be installed at the Madrid network hub. All told, this network will be capable of transmitting voice, fax, data, Internet and videoconference traffic at speeds up to 128 kbps.”

      Both of these contracts highlight a major trend in disaster recovery–namely an increased emphasis by responsible bodies on improved emergency planning.

      “September 11th has heightened awareness in the business community to the need for disaster recovery planning and solutions,” says Jeff Gross, Immeon’s general manager. “These events have made the relationship between lost revenue and network/telecommunication downtime much clearer and closer to reality to many companies, IT organizations and CTOs. Many companies are realizing that they have little or no plan in place and need one, or have taken this shocking incident as a wake-up call to review and rethink the plans they do have in place.”

      “Satellite is a great fit for this application and there are many opportunities, similar to the applications we are involved in already,” Gross observes. “There are thousands of commercial companies and hundreds of government agencies and nonprofits that need similar services, so the market is large. And satellite provides true redundancy: a network path completely independent from primary terrestrial network services.”

      The Biggest Challenges

      Of course, every silver lining has a cloud attached, and every opportunity comes with a set of challenges to overcome. In the area of satellite-based disaster recovery services, “the challenge is to respond to customers who are examining their telecommunications infrastructure, and trying to ensure that hardware will no longer be the weakest link,” says Immeon’s Gross. “Since the satellite industry provides a compelling telecommunications solution by virtue of its ability to completely bypass last mile vulnerabilities and terrestrial backbone failure points, the challenge now is to overcome the other obstacles of satellite usage. These include high bandwidth costs, and customer wariness of the technology.”

      “Another challenge is getting the communications equipment into the hands of agencies that can use it,” adds TSS’ Surface. “Too often, satellite communications equipment just sits on the shelf unused either because someone forgot to bring it, or they don’t know how to use it. Once this obstacle is overcome, the agencies usually find the services a great asset to their operations. Within time, they ‘don’t leave home without it.'”

      “We also need to educate the customer,” says NSI’s Mankarious. “We need them to understand the importance of having a disaster plan in place all the time. It’s like backing up a hard disk: you hope you never need it, but it’s essential when faced with a disaster.”

      On the part of the satellite industry itself, “we need to have pre-positioned operating systems in strategic locations worldwide prior to disasters occurring,” says Landsea’s Ravenna. “We also need to design appropriate and durable equipment for these specific requirements,” adds ND Satcom’s Kurz. “And we need to be on the leading edge of satcom technology,” concludes Swe-Dish’s Lindbolm, “to ensure that our customers have access to new, innovative, reliable, small-sized and easy-to-operate systems.”

      What The Future Holds

      One thing appears certain: as we move towards “a more insecure world,” as Swe-Dish’s Lindbolm puts it, the need for ever-more capable disaster recovery solutions will continue to grow.

      “There will be a continuing need for disaster recovery communications solutions,” says Mankarious. “Service providers who make this an economically feasible alternative for their customers will reap the economic benefits in the long run.” So what will the future look like? Well, Ravenna expects tomorrow’s disaster recovery networks to have “early response communications integrated with auto-tracking of assets and intra-force communications of air, land, and sea operations, all coordinated from communication command centers in the United States.”

      In addition, increased portability and ruggedness will be hallmarks of tomorrow’s disaster recovery technology, along with extra reliability and hopefully reduced cost to boot. The importance of cost should not be under-rated. As the first version of Iridium proved, a great satellite idea won’t make money unless it’s competitively priced.

      Still, uncertainty is good for the disaster recovery business, and the future is anything but certain. Satellite companies looking for new markets should keep these two facts foremost in mind.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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