In the months since Hurricane Katrina showcased yet again the critical role of satellite communications services in disaster relief and recovery operations, complaints have surfaced about the availability and performance of these services in the storm’s wake.
Some of the criticisms brought by first responders raise legitimate issues, while others appear to be based on misperceptions of what satellite technology can and cannot do. All can and should be addressed.
Emergency workers say that in Katrina’s aftermath, satellite phones and other equipment were scarce, expensive, not always reliable and often difficult to use. Many of these complaints were aired publicly March 6 at a hearing in Jackson, Miss., of the “Independent Panel Reviewing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Communications Networks.” The Katrina panel was chartered by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and will report back June 15 with recommendations for improving networks and related infrastructure in preparation for future disasters.
The Satellite Industry Association (SIA), which represents satellite telecommunications hardware and services companies, was aware of these concerns before the hearing. The association wrote the Katrina panel March 3 to suggest ways in which many of the problems associated with satellite services could be avoided.
The FCC’s post-Katrina review has so far proved a worthwhile exercise. The commission appears to be wholeheartedly embracing the task of giving Congress, the White House and relevant federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security the information they need to ensure that the United States has sufficiently robust telecommunications infrastructure to respond to and recover quickly from future disasters. Clearly the FCC recognizes that satellite networks are an indispensable component of this infrastructure.
For its part, the SIA has served the Katrina panel and its own corporate members well by staying on top of the issue and making some common-sense recommendations for improving the utility and reliability of emergency satellite services.
The association stressed better education and training for disaster-relief workers in the use of satellite technology, and the need for federal, state and local authorities to equip themselves with satellite hardware and capacity in advance of future emergencies. The SIA also said satellite equipment technicians should be given the proper credentials for access to disaster-stricken areas.
The need for actions along these lines first became apparent — but was not acted upon — after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. That disaster exposed the inherent vulnerability of terrestrial telecommunications networks, and in doing so showed why satellite capabilities are so important.
Katrina reinforced that lesson in spades. But it also demonstrated that the government and industry have some work to do on the satellite side.
That work begins with the education and training of first responders in the use of satellite services, a responsibility that falls into both camps. In doing its part, industry needs to be upfront and candid about the limits of satellite technology, even if that runs counter to the basic instincts of salespeople. Some of the post-Katrina complaints about satellite phones suggest that rescue workers were not always getting the full story about these systems.
To its credit, the SIA is putting its own advice into action : it is approaching governments in hurricane-prone states to discuss creating a satellite-technology seminar program for disaster-relief personnel. These seminars, which would be hosted by the SIA, notionally would begin during of the 2006 hurricane season, if not sooner.
Properly equipping first responders is the job of governments, but here too the industry can serve the cause while helping itself. One encouraging sign is that companies are coming out with new products and services tailored specifically for disaster-response applications. Satellite equipment suppliers also now know that they need to do a better job of arranging logistics before a potentially devastating storm hits.
While Katrina showed that there is room for improvement, any rational and informed analysis of satellite services in the relief and recovery operation comes down heavily on the positive side. Simply put, when terrestrial communications infrastructure is knocked out, as was the case in Katrina, satellites are the only alternative.
To be sure, satellites are not infallible . But if the U.S. government adopts the recommendations that should be forthcoming from the Katrina panel, and industry does its part, satellite technology will become to disaster relief authorities what cellular phones already are to most of the American public. And the public will be better off for it.