Modern “wireless” connections, like Wi-Fi and cellular service, are actually not wireless at all. In fact, they depend on wires that run underground and over old-fashioned telephone poles to send communications signals back and forth to the core network. They are only truly ‘wireless’ at the last segment of the transmission – when the connection hands off to a Wi-Fi access point or cell tower that broadcasts the signal the rest of the way to your device. But during a natural disaster, that can be a major vulnerability.
When terrestrial communications networks go down in the wake of an earthquake, a tornado or flooding from a hurricane, Wi-Fi and cellular connections simply won’t work. For government agencies in the business of providing vital services to citizens, a backup communications plan is essential to ensure business continuity at all times – and especially in times of natural disaster.
That’s where satellite comes in. Satellite provides an alternate method to access communication networks – without relying on the vulnerable terrestrial infrastructure.
“Satellite offers a diverse path,” said Tony Bardo, assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes Network Systems, LLC (HUGHES). “The path diversity that satellite offers enables the continuity of the government mission. During a disaster is the worst possible time for an agency to be closing its doors and not serving the public. Business continuity means you can keep serving customers, and in government, you keep your doors open so that you can still serve the public.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Hughes helped both private and public sector customers – such as FEMA, the Interior Department, Customs and Border Protection and the Small Business Administration – establish satellite connections to provide both phone and internet service to citizens and first responders. That’s how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was able to warn FEMA and other authorities on the ground before a dam broke, worsening the flooding.
Under normal circumstances, Bardo said, Hughes can deploy to a disaster area and be up and running within 48 hours. Puerto Rico was different, because of the island location and the damage to infrastructure. The roads had to be repaired enough to drive gear from the airport to the FEMA recovery sites. In fact, it had been such a struggle to get the necessary equipment where it was needed that FEMA decided to keep it in place even after the phone and internet lines were restored.
That turned out to be a good decision, because in 2019 and 2020, Puerto Rico got hit by a series of earthquakes that caused around $3.1 billion in damages, including to major infrastructure. Once again, phone lines were down, internet was out, and roads were impassable. But this time, FEMA had the gear they needed already in place – now they had built-in resiliency.
“We were in Puerto Rico for over a year with the services because it took that long for the Puerto Rican telephone company to repair the terrestrial infrastructure,” Bardo said. “For a while there, we were the phone company. And then we had path diversity in place for an emergency. You can’t always predict when or where you’re going to experience a flood that will take down your terrestrial telecom. That’s why it’s critical to have resiliency built into your network. Business continuity is the result of emergency preparedness.”
Bardo said Hughes is currently working on the next generation of satellite communications technology, which is slated to launch in the second half of 2021. He said upload and download speeds with that technology should be comparable to some terrestrial services – with speeds of up to 100 Mbps down.
“Satellite technology often gets a bad rap, but that’s because people are thinking about the communications satellites of the last century,” Bardo said. “Today’s high throughput satellite technology is fast and reliable – and serves as the primary internet service for millions of customers at broadband speeds. Plus, the on-going development of satellite technology has increased speeds and reduced costs dramatically, making satellite an affordable alternate-path solution for a more bulletproof network.”
But affordability is just icing on the cake; counting pennies in the aftermath of a natural disaster is a zero-sum game. It comes down to the fact that when terrestrial communications are down, satellite capability saves lives.
“The most essential service in an emergency is communications,” Bardo said. “Without it, you can’t coordinate any response at all. And the best way to ensure you have connectivity when you need it is to have diverse paths at every location. We’ve seen time and again how, in times of disaster, satellite delivers.”