The natural disasters that hit Myanmar and China in May exposed challenges in disaster response facing the
relief organizations that have been working to establish a satellite communications network since the 2004 tsunami hit countries bordering the Indian Ocean.


While in many instances the technology exists to link aid workers in remote places with their command base, satellite-linked equipment and training for aid workers are expensive for relief organizations on limited budgets, said Alpha Bau, information and communications technologies emergency officer for the Rome-based United Nations’ World Food Programme.


Speaking at Intelsat‘s Global Telecommunications Meeting in Washington June 5, Bau described relief workers delivering food on the backs of camels, horses and on foot in remote regions. That translates to technology deficiencies that can be addressed with hand-held or suitcase-sized devices linked to satellites,
panelists said.


Developing countries are not the only locations that need satellite technologies. Panelists noted that cell phone use was disrupted in China after the earthquake and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.


“When an earthquake hits of that magnitude it’s difficult [to plan ahead]. Part of that planning is to have people trained in the technology to use satellite communications to document what is happening,” said Richard Gustafson, executive vice president of operations for Global Relief Technologies of Portsmouth, N.H.


William Brindley, chief executive of NetHope, a
22-member consortium of humanitarian aid organizations,
recently returned from the Bangkok, Thailand, staging area for relief work in Myanmar and China more aware of the challenges.


“It was quite fascinating and sometimes discouraging when you see the obstacles as to how we’re going to …
scramble in response to emergencies,” he said.


The World Food Programme has identified telecommunications as a priority and has formed a group to set standards for VHF and HF communications as well as for satellite dishes, Bau said.


“In the past the international community did not recognize the importance of telecommunications,” Bau said, adding that more attention is focused on it now.


The biggest obstacle, Bau said, is cost. Jim Gilbert, chief executive of On Call Communications, agreed.


“Our biggest issue is being able to make service affordable,” he said. “Satellite phones are the last resort and it’s actually what works.”


Companies like On Call of Foothill Ranch, Calif., which teams with Bermuda-based Intelsat to provide automated satellite terminals to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for mobile disaster response, are working to place equipment and capacity ahead of a disaster and refine equipment so it can be deployed as quickly as possible,
Gilbert said. FEMA, for example, has an Intelsat package that guarantees space when the agency needs it, he said.


Recent disasters have opened business opportunities for satellite operators, hardware and systems providers, panelists said.


“I think we are at an interesting place in history, where there is a lot of attention – whether from Katrina or the tsunami – where a lot of corporate organizations and others have perked up and want to respond,” Brindley said.


Global Relief Technologies has developed satellite data collection software for hand-held devices that allows relief workers to transmit and receive data and images while in the field,
Gustafson said. “It’s a challenging process but the technologies are becoming available,”
he said.


McLean, Va.-based NetHope, whose members include the Red Cross, has formed a working group to look at planning, capacity building and a coordinated response that taps all available communications technology, including satellite power and reach, Brindley said.


The consortium has created a NetReliefKit that provides data and voice connectivity in a suitcase – a major advancement since Brindley’s early days of carrying a 22.5-kilogram box to the site of a disaster, he said, adding that he used the new rolling suitcase for training in Bangkok.

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