Satellite Communications Networks: A Critical Element in Preparing for Disasters

By |2019-10-28T19:08:21+00:00October 28th, 2019|0 Comments

While disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis occur with little to no warning, other disasters provide days or even weeks of warning, such as hurricanes and droughts.  Regardless of the number of days of advance warning provided by the disaster, smart and well-resourced governments, civil society and communities spend time planning for the type of disasters endemic to their region.  Planning how to deploy food, water, shelter and medicine following disasters saves lives, and equally important is planning how to maintain and, when necessary, restore communications following disaster.

Communications networks are not impervious to the effects of disasters.  Like roads, buildings and bridges, communications networks can be damaged or even destroyed by disasters as, for example, tornados topple cell towers and earthquakes destroy cables.  Planning for the near certainty that communications networks will be damaged or destroyed by disasters will speed restoration of communications post-disaster.  

As with any disaster preparedness plan, preparing a communications network for a disaster requires at least two elements:

  1. Financial and human resources to develop and implement a preparedness plan; and
  1. A robust network that, while perhaps not impervious to all disasters, is capable of being quickly and inexpensively restored.

There is no “one size fits all” disaster preparedness plan for communications networks.  Factors such as geography, the type of disasters endemic to the region, the level of economic development and the sophistication of first responders all must be considered in developing the plan.  The process to develop a disaster preparedness plan for communications networks must include government (local and national), first responders, network owners and operators, and community representatives.  Exclude a vital stakeholder and the plan will have gaps that may prove fatal.

Turning to the second element of preparing a communications network for a disaster, the starting point must be to invest in a network that is robust (i.e. able to withstand all but the most severe disasters) and resilient (i.e. able to be restored in relatively short order).  

Before turning to what may be the most robust and resilient network, it is important to emphasize that relying on just one network to respond to a disaster is never advised.  If resources permit, redundant networks should be developed so that if one network is put out of service by a disaster, a back-up network might survive.

As noted above, no network is impervious to the most severe disasters.  Tsunamis, tornados, severe earthquakes and floods can destroy even the most hardened communications networks. However, satellite communications networks offer advantages over earth-based networks in times of disaster for several reasons.  

First, the heart of satellite communications networks – the communications satellite – is out of harm’s way as it floats in space far above the earthquake, flood, storm, etc.  Contrast the satellite with earth-based networks, and one quickly realizes that the heart of the terrestrial network is at risk of being destroyed along with the rest of the terrestrial network in the disaster-affected region.

A second advantage of satellite communications networks also relates to the fact that the satellite is high above the ground.  Specifically, given its high vantage point, a satellite “sees” large swaths of geography, which includes not only the disaster-affected region but neighboring regions from which disaster relief operations are launched. Indeed, a communications satellite in geostationary orbit can “see” one third of the Earth and is particularly well positioned to provide communications links between the disaster-affected region and regions from which relief supplies, disaster responders and other vital resources will be launched.

A third advantage of satellite communications is that the earth-based portion of the satellite communications network – the antennas that communicate with the satellite – are now easily transported into disaster-affected regions. Inexpensive antennas of one meter or less can be broken down into components and literally carried by people up the side of a mountain and this can prove to be vital when roads have been destroyed by earthquakes, landslides, and floods and fuel is in short supply.

Finally, due to advances in satellite technology, huge amounts of data can be transmitted to and from these small antennas, improving situational awareness and enabling applications like telemedicine, videoconferencing and real-time information sharing between disaster responders and their headquarters.

Disasters are increasing in frequency and impact. Governments, civil society and communities are devoting increased resources to preparing for disasters as the return on investment of disaster preparedness is seen as being significant. As disaster preparedness plans are developed, it is critical that communications networks be included. Such plans must be inclusive and tailored to the particular vulnerabilities of the community for whose benefit the plans are developed. While all communications networks are vulnerable to the greatest storms and disasters, satellite communications networks are particularly robust and resilient. As such, satellite communications networks should be a critical component of any disaster preparedness plan.

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About the Author:

David Meltzer is the Secretary General of GVF which is the global trade association for the satellite industry. At GVF, he leads advocacy efforts on behalf of the satellite industry with national and international regulators while providing members with benefits in areas such as online and classroom training, organizing industry conferences, and leading industry working groups on topics that include international regulatory matters, sustainable space operations, and disaster relief. He has 30 years of experience in the satellite and humanitarian industries with senior positions at Intelsat leading its legal, regulatory and procurement operations and at the American Red Cross leading its legal, international disaster relief, and development activities.

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