UN WFP Emergency Telecommunications Cluster ETC
UN Emergency Telecommunications Cluster first responders bringing satellite telecom infrastructure to Nepal following a devastating earthquake in 2015. Credit: Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

WASHINGTON —  Nine satellite companies agreed May 17 to donate satellite capacity and equipment to the United Nations, seeking to coordinate their responses to natural disasters.

The agreement is the culmination of a three-year effort to band together and avoid being overshadowed by the collective emergency response efforts of the cellular industry, which announced its own “Humanitarian Connectivity Charter” at Mobile World Congress in 2015.

Led by prominent satellite industry groups the EMEA Satellite Operators Association and the Global VSAT Forum, eight satellite operators and satellite services provider Global Eagle committed to provide free connectivity to the UN World Food Program for up to three months in the wake of a disaster.

The World Food Program, which heads the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster, will now be able to activate the satellite industry’s Crisis Connectivity Charter when disasters strike, spinning up satellite resources for deployment within 24-hours.

Arabsat, Eutelsat, Global Eagle, Hispasat, Inmarsat, Intelsat, SES, Thuraya and Yahsat are all signatories to the charter.

Satellite communications companies are often called upon by governments and nonprofits when natural disasters or other crises destroy cellular towers and other terrestrial infrastructure. For that reason the GSM Association-led cellular industry’s charter was all the more surprising to satellite companies.

“We have such long-standing relations with the UN I thought, ‘what is going on?’” Aarti Holla, secretary general of the EMEA Satellite Operators Association, told SpaceNews. “Satellite has a natural role to play in emergencies.”

The UN and satellite industry representatives signed the emergency response charter in October 2015, some seven months after the UN and cellular industry signed a similar charter. Ironing out implementation took much longer. Signatories had to handle legal work determining how they would donate resources and make sure they complied with regulations in their home countries.  

“Signing the charter was the easy bit,” Holla said. “What today was about was actually signing the donation contracts, the legally binding bilateral agreements between every satellite operator who has signed the charter and the World Food Program.”

Only YahSat and Thuraya, having announced plans last month to merge, will need “another week or two” to finalize details, she said.

Holla said the charter helps organize sometimes disparate satellite industry efforts. She said one first responder who assisted in a Haitian relief effort recalled “literally tripping over satellite dishes, there were so many of them out there.”

The UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster can now call upon the charter when needed. The EMEA Satellite Operators Association and the Global VSAT Forum said charter signatories have trained World Food Program and Emergency Telecommunications Cluster-partner field staff on how to install and use satellite equipment.

In a May 17 statement, Paul Gudonis, president of Inmarsat Enterprise said this operational phase of the charter “will see the satellite industry commit dedicated equipment and pre-allocated bandwidth capacity for humanitarian purposes that can be activated within 24 hours of an ensuing crisis and cover all regions of the globe.”

Statements from SES, Inmarsat and Hispasat said satellite industry contributions support urgent medical care, logistics such as food delivery and the coordination of relief efforts by providing internet access.

“Emergency first responders must have access to reliable networks to be able to coordinate their efforts and bring help as quickly as possible,” said Nicole Robinson, SES Networks’ senior vice president of global government.” By signing this agreement, SES confirms its commitment to further support the [UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster] in its disaster relief efforts, and more broadly, to continue supporting the communities which we serve globally.”

Spain-based Hispasat said it will send 10 satellite terminals in the coming weeks to UN depots in Panama. First responders can use those terminals for emergency response efforts throughout Latin America, the company said.

“At HISPASAT we are concerned about our commitment to society and we are always ready to collaborate in emergency situations, as we did after Katrina, Irma and Maria hurricanes, the Haiti earthquake or the forest fires that swept Galicia last year,” Hispasat CEO Carlos Espinós said in a statement. “In these cases, telecommunications are essential and satellites can make them available to first responders and communities affected by disasters.”

Eutelsat spokesperson Marie-Sophie Ecuer told SpaceNews by email May 18 that Eutelsat is providing capacity on four satellites and 70 ready-to-deploy kits to cover Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Eastern Asia, South America and the Caribbean. Each kit includes a VSAT, or very small aperture terminal, an installation film and an app for pointing and set up, she said.

Holla said the charter is open for more satellite operators and service providers to join.

Caleb Henry is a former SpaceNews staff writer covering satellites, telecom and launch. He previously worked for Via Satellite and NewSpace Global.He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science along with a minor in astronomy from...