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Disaster Recovery: Satellite More Prominent than Ever – From our archive

By Greg Berlocher | August 31, 2017

Hurricane Harvey has dumped record-breaking amounts of rain over Texas this week, and the storm continues to hit other areas of the continental U.S. Then in South Asia, monsoon rains across India, Bangladesh, and Nepal have killed hundreds and displaced millions. In this article from 2013, we go over satellite’s critical role for emergency response and disaster recovery as terrestrial networks are saturated or collapse. This article was originally published on Via Satellite’s July 2013 issue.

A seminal moment in disaster recovery occurred in 1988 when a fire destroyed a central office operated by Illinois Bell in the suburbs of Chicago. The Hinsdale Central Office handled 40,000 local phone lines, which supported the O’Hare International Airport and numerous businesses. Service wasn’t restored for weeks and, one by one, thriving businesses failed and were liquidated. Network planners and architects came to realize that there are a multitude of things that can negatively impact network operations in addition to natural disasters.

While disaster recovery and business continuity are similar in many ways and share many overlapping concerns, they are different subjects. Disaster recovery deals with the aftermath of a catastrophic event that affects an area or region. Business continuity involves the safeguarding of critical business functions.

Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery and business continuity are definitely different disciplines, according to Karl Fuchs, vice president of technology at iDirect Government Technologies (iGT). Fuchs says there are two driving factors when it comes to disaster recovery: interoperability and deployability. “First responders need to establish radio networks and then extend their coverage region-wide. VSATs are often used as the backhaul solution for these radio networks,” he says.

One of iGT’s customers is the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Their job is to bring life back to normal for the affected people. FEMA must often support a large region, which has been affected. People come to rely on the communications infrastructure during day to day operations but then, all of a sudden, it is gone,” Fuchs says.

First responders rely on communications technologies such as cell phones, push-to-talk radios, and 802.11 hotspots. “We bring all of those disparate technologies into a satellite hub and then provide enough satellite bandwidth to restore connectivity. A satellite network provides a canopy of connectivity to the affected region,” he says.

“Size, weight, power draw, and the ability to bring the system on line quickly are critical factors to first responders. Relief agencies often have to fly or drive in food and water supplies along with the communications equipment. Small size and weight is often very important,” Fuchs adds.

Tony Bardo, assistant VP of Government Solutions at Hughes, highlights the challenge of dealing with the unknown after a disaster. Bardo’s group deals with federal, state, and local governments and is no stranger to disasters. He says that in the United States the government plays a major role in the recovery after a disaster, providing essential services to those affected. According to Bardo, Hughes is still providing services to three Super Storm Sandy FEMA relief sites, even though it has been more than eight months since it struck.

“After the storm, we were setting up communication centers in tents, churches, and temporary buildings. At one location we had two satellite antennas in the parking lot and cables were run into the buildings through the windows. It wasn’t an elegant installation but we were able to establish communications quickly and they are still working reliably today,” Bardo adds.

TrustComm’s Satellite Emergency Operations Network (SEON) solution has been successfully deployed by Harris County, Texas, and other government agencies. Ian Canning, TrustComm’s COO says the biggest frustration with disaster recovery is you don’t know exactly what to plan for. He says they have to address questions such as planning for a partial failure or for a catastrophic failure, as well as addressing the need of whether to turn up capacity very quickly without much planning.

“One thing that governments can do to help prepare is look at past history. They know that they will have a certain number of incidents per month. They can then predict fairly accurately how many incidents they will have in the future and what their needs will be. They can then use that as a baseline to secure enough satellite services to support them when they are needed. Unfortunately, commercial organizations are not nearly as prepared as government agencies to deal with disaster recovery situations,” Canning says.

Data Connectivity Issues

Aditya Chatterjee, CTO at Spacenet, also notes the challenges of dealing with disaster recovery situations, pointing out that there are often a myriad of data connectivity issues that must be resolved at the time of the disaster. He says disaster recovery customers require as many ad hoc applications as possible, some of which don’t work well over a satellite link. “Therefore, it is tremendously helpful if you can integrate the satellite solution with the customer’s routers, switches, and other networking gear before a disaster occurs,” Chatterjee explains. “Network designers should identify their most important applications up-front and then ensure they can also work over satellite.”

Chatterjee also points out that capital constraints have kept some organizations from using satellite technology in past disaster recovery situations. As a result, Spacenet has introduced a turnkey satellite-based service called ECSConnect, which restores the network while eliminating all requirements for capital expenditures.

Network designers should identify their most important applications up-front and then ensure they can also work over satellite
­— Aditya Chatterjee, Spacenet

In early 2011, Japan was hit by the most powerful earthquake every recorded in the country, killing more than 15,000 people and destroying or damaging close to a million buildings. SKY Perfect JSAT’s satellite services were used as the country dealt with the aftermath. Flyaway terminals were dispatched to help coordinate emergency equipment supply, and approximately 200 VSATs were installed to provide Internet connectivity at temporary housing shelters. SKY Perfect JSAT also deployed satellite connections to help Japan’s wireless carriers restore their networks.

According to Sky Perfect JSAT officials, the earthquake reinforced the importance of satellites as a critical infrastructure. With such disasters seemingly becoming more commonplace, it will be up to providers such as Sky Perfect JSAT to provide stable networks.

Business Continuity

Enterprises value business continuity, and this is where satellite can come into play. “Terrestrial carriers may offer redundant services, but they aren’t necessarily diverse. Satellite technology offers both redundant and path diversity, thereby providing a very strong value proposition,” says Dave Rehbehn, senior director of international marketing at Hughes.

He says the banking industry is a good example where satellite technology plays a key role in terms of business continuity. Rehbehn talks of the Basel II banking accord, an internationally recognized set of recommendations related to the banking industry, which includes regulations and requirements on how banks address and mitigate risks.

“There are specific sections in the accord that deal specifically with Information Technology (IT). These standards mandate network redundancy ensuring that a bank’s customers can always access their funds, thereby fostering confidence in the banking system,” he says.

Rehbehn cites Indonesia as an example where the government requires every bank to have satellite backup. As debit cards become ever more ubiquitous, in some parts of the world it is already uncommon to use cash, says Rehbehn, which means that retailers are expected to be online – they need to be. “Retailers understand that sales halt without communications. Our customers are always concerned with costs, but it goes back to value. A business needs to ask: How much does it cost to lose my network?” he adds.

Diverse routing is something that can offer a number of advantages to businesses. With the tremendous cost of network downtime, customers are not only deploying primary networks, but also more robust back-up/secondary networks, according to Chatterjee. “In addition to serving as the back-up for the primary networks’ mission-critical applications, the back-up network is also used for non-mission-critical multicast applications such as training, business television and other bandwidth hogs, like photo processing and video kiosks in the retail space,” he says.

Continuity of Operations (COOP) objectives are similar to disaster recovery but not the same, according to Fuchs. He says businesses have to consider events that can negatively affect a single site, such as a backhoe fade. “Business continuity planners aren’t as concerned about size and weight as first responders, plus they have the benefit of time. A satellite modem can be pre-deployed to every site and the satellite network is ready to go when you need it. Business customers and retailers are extremely concerned about the monthly cost of a COOP network. First responders have the attitude ‘we have to get this done,’ while business continuity planners have the attitude ‘what can we get done?’” Fuchs says.

Thaicom offers the Ipstar Business Continuity Service, which provides redundancy for Internet connections and other data connections, as well as VPN-based IP needs. Given the recent natural disasters in Asia, businesses are placing more value on such services. “With so many clients searching for a way to protect their business in case of a disaster, be it a network outage or natural disaster, like a typhoon or flood, satellite delivered continuity of operations is the only dependable redundancy solution as it does not depend on a local or regional infrastructure,” says Ken Streutker, vice president of investor relations at Thaicom.

Lessons Learned

Kirk Williams, VP of sales at Mobilsat, shared a few lessons learned from dealing with customers, and from his own company’s experiences. He says planning ahead is key, identifying which voice and data resources are vital and must be available even in the event of a disaster, and have a written plan of how their availability will be maintained. Williams also says it is important to do a complete enterprise-wide assessment to determine which applications are mission-critical, as well as consulting with all stakeholders to identify which applications and business practices are critical to their departments. He recommends listing them all in order of priority. “It is most likely that during a disaster recovery scenario you will not have the same amount of bandwidth available as your primary connection, so certain things will have to be eliminated or scaled back in your disaster recovery plan,” he adds.

Establishing a budget is also key, according to Williams, as it can be difficult justifying the funds. It is sometimes very helpful to examine what the economic impact would be if voice and/or data connectivity were completely lost, he says.

It is also important to analyze what types of events could cause an interruption to normal business practices, such as loss or damage of critical infrastructure, supply chain interruption, crime, weather event, etc. Williams recommends drawing up a contingency plan for each. “Document everything. Then you need to regularly review your disaster recovery plans to make sure that they are up to date. Change is constant in every enterprise, and in business continuity applications, change is not necessarily your friend. Business continuity plans that were drawn up last year may not include new business processes, new applications, or new systems that have been recently put in place,” he says.

An aerial view of storm and fire damage along the coast of New York.

An aerial view of storm and fire damage along the coast of New York.

Jake Rembert, VP of sales at Globalstar, also points out the need for reliable communications in a time of crisis and emphasizes the importance of small, portable communications devices with affordable hardware costs and pricing plans. “First responders require the mobility of a cell phone, and battery powered satellite phones are an essential part of any recovery effort,” he says.

“Preparation is the key,” Rembert continues. “Demand usually outstrips supply when a major disaster hits, leaving some organizations without communications. Organizations should purchase equipment and train their employees well before they ever need it. Many of our customers keep satellite phones and extra batteries packaged in weatherproof ‘Go Kits.’ Battery maintenance is important. You should test your satellite phone quarterly, if not monthly. Lithium batteries will hold a charge for years but you should make sure the primary and backup are fully charged,” he says.

Canning also highlights the “keep-it-simple” approach; he says the company is a big fan of auto-deploy antennas because they are quick and easy to set up. “Hit a button and the antenna locks on the correct satellite. When the adrenaline is pumping, you don’t want your employees to have to think,” he adds.

Chatterjee suggests that the amount of satellite bandwidth organizations need to keep in reserve is based on the technology of primary network. Spacenet manages different technologies such as MPLS, DSL, cable, wireless and satellite understanding real performance levels. Based on a 1,000-site network, the company recommends that customers have enough satellite bandwidth reserved to support 1 percent, or 10 locations, if the customer operates an MPLS, Frame Relay or a T1 network. “If the customer’s network runs on DSL circuits, the reserved bandwidth should be increased to 2 to 3 percent, and if wireless is the primary network technology, the amount of reserved bandwidth should be able to support closer to 6 to 8 percent of the total number of locations,” says Chatterjee.