Disasters may be cataclysmic or minor, affect large or small areas, arrive unexpectedly or as predicted. However, when disaster strikes, survivors and those helping have three basic needs: food, water and shelter.
None of these needs can be met by responders without the ability to communicate what, when and where help is needed. Having led international disaster relief activities for the American Red Cross for more than 12 years — bookended by more than 20 years in the satellite industry — I have a deep appreciation for the role satellites play in alleviating suffering following a disaster.
I first saw the role satellites play following a disaster just weeks after joining the American Red Cross, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas, leaving people without their phones, and telecommunications networks disabled.
I called on former colleagues in the satellite industry, and satellite operators stepped up and donated critically needed capacity that quickly restored communications links and responded to the expanded needs for voice, data and video services in the region.
The role of communications satellites was driven home to me following the 2010 earthquake that leveled much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In that disaster, one of my American Red Cross colleagues climbed out of the ruins that had been our office and used his Iridium satellite phone to both tell us he was alive and provide initial damage assessments that gave us essential information needed to start the relief efforts.
A few days later, I traveled to Port-au-Prince, where the terrestrial network was largely inoperable and satellite phones and VSATs were critically needed to mount and execute an immense relief effort. However, one of the most vivid memories was seeing survivors using satellite phones to fulfill a basic human need: telling loved ones that they were alive.
Another “on-the-ground” memory of the vital role played by satellites following disasters came in 2015 when an earthquake in Nepal killed thousands, destroyed buildings, electrical grids and terrestrial communications networks, and left tens of thousands homeless — often in mountainous regions with roads impassable due to the earthquake. Field hospitals were quickly deployed and communications networks — often useing telemedicine — were restored via VSATs that were hand carried in many cases up mountain trails.
The year 2017 saw the devastating Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that left much of the terrestrial telecommunications network inoperable. As in Haiti seven years earlier, survivors needed to tell loved ones they were alive and what assistance they needed. In this case, the American Red Cross utilized satellites to create Wi-Fi hotspots, enabling survivors to use their phones to communicate with the outside world.
There are many examples of the satellite industry responding to calls for assistance from governments and civil society following disasters. Driven by this recurring need and recognizing that climate change will increase both the frequency and severity of climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, floods and droughts, the satellite industry entered into an agreement with the United Nations. Pursuant to the Crisis Connectivity Charter, approximately 12 satellite industry companies committed to provide capacity, equipment and training to the U.N.’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster and to provide such assistance at no cost. Since its creation in 2018, the Charter has been activated on numerous occasions and the signatory companies have provided the capacity, equipment and training needed to quickly restore communications and mount relief efforts.
There are five prime advantages of satellite communications networks following disasters:
- Unlike terrestrial networks which rely on wires, cables and towers in disaster zones, the bulk of satellite communications networks sit outside of disaster zones, safely orbiting in space.
- The relatively inexpensive and easy-to-operate ground-based part of satellite communications networks (i.e., the terminal or antenna) can be readily transported into disaster zones — even by hand when roads are destroyed — and quickly put into operation.
- Satellite terminals are ubiquitous and can be quickly brought into disaster zones if needed.
- The cost of establishing the satellite-enabled communications link can be quite small — particularly if the Crisis Connectivity Charter is activated as equipment and satellite capacity is provided by the Charter signatories at no cost.
- If the disaster occurs in a remote area not well served pre-disaster by terrestrial or space-based networks, steerable satellite beams and software-defined satellites are extremely flexible and able to quickly provide the capacity where it is needed by responders and those affected by the disaster.
When disaster strikes, the need arises to deliver assistance quickly and effectively. Satellite communications networks are especially able to provide the means to deliver such assistance by enabling responders to quickly determine what assistance is needed and where it is needed. As importantly, such networks enable survivors to tell loved ones, “I’m alive.”
David Meltzer is the secretary general of GVF. Previously, he was general counsel of the American Red Cross and Intelsat, among other positions. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of GVF members.