Satellite communications played a critical role in restoring telecommunication services to the U.S. Gulf Coast Region. When the land-based telephone and broadcast networks went down — satellites remained on the job. Satellites provided redundancy, ubiquity and resiliency that were unavailable from land-based networks.
Satellites first warned of the impending danger. Afterwards, satellites connected emergency personnel and other first responders. Satellites reunited families. Satellites reconnected communities. And satellites enabled the world to witness the devastation of these disasters — and also the many acts of heroism.
Although the performance of satellite systems was impressive, their use was often limited by a lack of preparation. Many of the communications problems that occurred in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas recently — and New York City after 9/11 — would have been substantially mitigated had satellite systems been more effectively integrated into our emergency communications network.
As [FCC Chairman Kevin J.] Martin recently stated, “if we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications.”
Satellites guarantee redundancy — and as we learned in New Orleans — the importance of redundancy cannot be over emphasized. The satellite industry was not as affected, as land-based networks were, by the hurricanes. While the outages on land-based networks surged in the days following the hurricanes, satellite networks were also experiencing a corresponding surge in demand for capacity.
Satellites quickly stepped in to provide instant infrastructure. Even during Hurricane Katrina, those with mobile satellite phones along the Gulf Coast found that their phones had a dial tone when other networks were silent.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Guard, the Red Cross, utility workers, people in search of loved ones — and even local phone companies — were among those using over 20,000 mobile satellite phones and terminals provided by Globalstar, Iridium, Mobile Satellite Ventures and Inmarsat.
Stratos Global, a re seller of Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat capacity and equipment provided free phone calls for victims at shelters set up throughout the affected area. Mobile Satellite Ventures also provided free service to state and local public safety agencies.
The fixed satellite service providers also stepped in quickly to provide emergency voice, video and data communications.
For example, Hughes Networks Systems immediately re-established Wal-Mart’s satellite communications network, creating one of the life-support systems for local communities starting to rebuild.
Intelsat reconfigured capacity and donated service to help cellular providers re-establish their networks, and to provide capacity for the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.
PanAmSat donated capacity to the Red Cross to provide communications to about 40 of their sites and to specially-equipped Red Cross mobile units.
SES-Americom and Americom Government Services donated capacity to enable high-speed ship-to-shore communications for the USS Iwo Jima, the ship that carried disaster relief teams, amphibious construction equipment and medical personnel and supplies to the New Orleans area following the flooding.
The satellite broadcast community also played a role with both XM Satellite Radio and DirecTV providing FEMA and the Red Cross with a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week dedicated broadcast station for disseminating hurricane-related information. XM’s Emergency Alert channel tracked the storm, reported on evacuation routes and now provides updates about storm clean up, road closures, school closings and other vital information.
America’s satellite industry can do more to aid disaster relief and recovery. We offer the following four recommendations:
– Satellites should be regarded as an essential component in all future critical telecom network planning;
– Satellite systems must be pre-deployed to a cadre of trained professionals;
– Satellite personnel must be credentialed as first responders; and,
– Satellite spectrum must be preserved and protected.
With these initiatives our satellite industry will be even better prepared to meet America’s disaster relief and recovery needs in the future.
Adapted from the Sept. 29 testimony of Tony Trujillo, chairman of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), at the hearing “Public Safety Communications from 9/11 to Katrina: Critical Public Policy Lessons” before the Energy and Commerce telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee.