Satellite communications industry prepares response to future disasters

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WASHINGTON — Satellite communications companies are working with national and international agencies to apply lessons from recent natural disasters to future emergencies.

One of the first steps will be the formal signing of a United Nations’ charter. By the end of April, satellite fleet operators are expected to sign the UN Crisis Connectivity Charter, a plan for satellite communications firms to assist nongovernmental organizations in preparing disaster response activities.

Under the charter, global satellite fleets will provide communications equipment and bandwidth. The equipment will be stored at United Nations facilities in Dubai, Panama and Brindisi, Italy, Simon Gray, Eutelsat humanitarian affairs vice president, said March 13 at the Satellite 2018 conference here.

It’s important to provide equipment prior to disasters to allow nongovernmental organizations to practice using it, Gray said, adding “once you start to practice, you get better and better.”

A lack of familiarity with satellite communications equipment was a serious problem during the U.S. government’s response to hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in September 2017.

Because the storm decimated Puerto Rico’s communications infrastructure, U.S. government response teams gave satellite phones to each mayor. The campaign was designed to solve the U.S. government’s problem of communicating with municipalities and coordinating life-saving activities, said Chris Tuttle, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Emergency Communications Region 2 coordinator. However, the mayors were not familiar with the technology. They didn’t know they had to be outside their offices or emergency response centers to send or receive calls, Tuttle added.

Iridium Communications also was heavily involved in helping Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands reestablish communications after the hurricane. Over 5,000 Iridium phones were being used on Puerto Rico alone and usage there spiked from a daily average of about 500 minutes to 20,000 minutes, said Ken Flowers, Iridium Communications vice president government.

Flowers also emphasized the need for people to become familiar with satellite phones prior to disasters.

“We can put a satellite phone in the hands of folks who don’t know how to use it and it won’t make a hill of beans difference,” Flowers said. Instead he recommends showing people how to use the phones prior to disasters and then storing the phones locally. “That would make emergency response a lot simpler,” Flowers added.

While satellite phones are essential in disaster response, communities also need small, inexpensive satellite ground terminals as they rebuilding infrastructure, Gray said.

Eutelsat’s terminals, for example, can be installed in one hour. “When you talk about shifting terrabyes of data, phones aren’t going to do it. You need VSAT.”