Without question, satellite technologies are on the radar screen of public-safety agencies across the country, for several reasons. One is that the technology has proved its worth time and time again in the aftermath of major disasters that rendered terrestrial communications systems inoperable. Another is that agencies are waking up to the fact that satellite has purpose for everyday operations.

For example, the city of Chicago is using its satellite-equipped unified command vehicle to redirect 911 center voice and data traffic when necessary. The decision to do this came in the aftermath of a power failure nine years ago that knocked off line the city's 911 center for three hours. The center is one of the nation's largest with 109 positions that handle up to 23,000 calls on a peak day.

"A two- to three-hour outage is huge," said David Beering, managing director of advanced networks for Morgan Franklin Corp., which worked with the city on the satellite deployment. Beering was one of several panelists who spoke on the topic of satellite communications during last month's International Wireless Communications Exposition (IWCE 2010) in Las Vegas.

Another reason that satellite is becoming more popular in the public-safety sector is that satellite service providers are working hard to eliminate cost as a barrier to entry. Several providers have so-called lifeline plans that put agencies on the grid for a nominal fee; then, when major incidents occur, agencies can increase bandwidth on demand, paying only for what they use. Generally, the agency receives priority access in such circumstances.

The technology likely will become even more popular in the future as subscriber units shrink in size, which they are beginning to do thanks to the very large satellites that now are orbiting. The larger the satellite, the smaller the antenna needed to pick up the signal. At the same time, satellite chipsets are shrinking, which enables them to be placed in smaller devices. Hence, handsets already are available that are no bigger than a PDA. This is in sharp contrast to the historical size of satellite handsets, which roughly were the size of construction bricks.

"They're coming down to a size where you can use them all of the time," said Clive King, director of federal business development for Terrestar.

In addition to small-form-factor devices that are capable of all of the voice and data capabilities offered by their cellular counterparts, satellite technology is being used for a wide variety of other purposes, in both the public and private sectors. For instance, the technology is being used extensively in unmanned aerial vehicles used for reconnaissance, something that the military has been using extensively for quite some time, but a tactic that increasingly being leveraged in disaster response.

"We were asked to provide a satellite ring for a UAV over Chile [after the massive Feb. 27 earthquake], so intelligence could be gathered without driving in there," said Tom Foust, vice president of global network solutions for Intelsat General. "After Hurricane Katrina, you couldn't drive into the New Orleans area — but they could fly over it."

Speaking of Katrina, a major retailer was able to keep its stores open in the aftermath of the disaster because it had satellite connectivity, which proved vital, according to Tony Bardo, assistant vice president for government solutions for Hughes Network Systems.

"I was at a conference three or four years ago, and one of the panelists was a gentleman who was in charge of communications for Wal-Mart," Bardo said. "Because they had satellite backup they were continuing to operate. One of the things he said was that Wal-Mart was able to provide essential governmental services — food, water, blankets, prescriptions, clothes and so forth — to affected members of the community."

But no matter how an agency uses satellite technology, the key to using it effectively is to use it often. Too often, satellite technology sits on the shelf until a disaster hits. In such circumstances, batteries are dead, service contracts have expired and personnel have forgotten how to deploy and utilize it. That's a big problem in the first crucial hours of a major incident, said Jim Corry, vice president of government solutions for SkyTerra.

"That's not a good time to read the owner's manual," Corry said.

However, when satellite is used on a regular, if not daily, basis, the results are quite different, Corry said. He offered the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks as a shining example of how to leverage satellite technology. According to Corry, the department installed satellite equipment in each of its 350 patrol cars, because there are numerous areas that suffer from poor LMR coverage and there is very little use of microwave backhaul in the state.

"They started to use satellite for primary coverage," Corry said.

So, the department and its personnel were up to speed on the technology, which was crucial in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, which took down wireline and cellular communications in the affected area — including the statewide radio system. When that happened, the department deployed its satellite-equipped patrol cars to act as nodes in order to restore communications.

"Mississippi, with the way they have this equipment deployed and the way they use it every day, is probably the best-practiced state in the entire nation on how to use satellite communications," Corry said, adding "if you're going to buy this stuff, you have to practice with it."

Corry, a former Secret Service agent, then shared a personal anecdote to hammer home his point. As a federal agent, he was required to re-qualify on his personal firearm on a monthly basis, and on other firearms once every three months. "It wasn't because they had a lot of excess ammo," he said. "They wanted to make sure I knew how to use [my weapon]."

Then, one day, all of the practice paid off. "That training philosophy saved my life during a bank robbery in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1978," Corry said. "That same concept will save you in a rural area or a disaster area, when you're dragging up any communications equipment that you have to be able to use."

The American Red Cross is one agency that gets plenty of practice on its satellite equipment, as it deploys the technology at 50 to 70 disasters per year. But not all disasters look alike, according to Keith Robertory, the agency's disaster services technology manager. Consequently, care must be taken to consider the nuances borne of the type of event and the environment in which it is occurring.

"We have a saying, 'If you've been on one disaster, you've been on one disaster,'" Robertory said. "Being on one disaster does not make you an expert." It also doesn't mean that what worked at one disaster is going to work at all disasters, and vice versa, he added.

Robertory agreed with Corry that practice is essential to effective utilization of satellite technology, so essential that the American Red Cross — which currently is using such communications extensively to support its relief efforts in Haiti after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the island nation in January — goes to great lengths to ensure that such practice occurs.

"We sometimes roll out the equipment not because we need it, but because we want people to play with it," Robertory said.

Training and practice only can take an agency so far, however. Governance also plays a crucial role in how soon satellite communications can be up and running, and whether they will be effective. For instance, commercial power often is rendered inoperable in the aftermath of major disasters — which means that "charge batteries" needs to appear somewhere on the checklist.

"You can bring some pretty sophisticated satellite technology into a region, but if it doesn't work when it's needed, it's going to be pretty much useless to you," Robertory said.

But fully charged batteries represent just the tip of the governance iceberg — bandwidth considerations are a much bigger worry, according to Robertory.

"You have to ask, 'Where are the spot beams?' The satellite I use covers half the globe, but there's a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean where it doesn't provide a signal," he said. "And what happens when you get a lot of devices on the same spot beam? These are questions that must be asked."

Because there is only so much capacity to be spread around, care also must be given to allocate it based on priority, similar to the way a military hospital on the front lines might triage patient care, according to Alasdair Calder, director of product management for Spacenet. The company deployed four VSAT (very small aperture terminal) sites in Haiti that generally provided data speeds of 5 Mb/s download and 1-2 Mb/s upload. However, 10 Mb/s bandwidth was provided to the Red Cross and even more was provided to certain field hospitals.

"We provided the bandwidth where it was really needed the most," Calder said.

Related Stories

VSAT facts

  • 10 Mb/s communications to any site with a view of the sky
  • No dependency on local communications infrastructure
  • Runs high-bandwidth applications simultaneously (VoIP/video/data)
  • Supports fixed, nomadic and mobile users

Source: Spacenet