Emergency communications must be out of harm’s way
By Tony Bardo
On the Breezy Point Peninsula in Queens, N.Y., there aren’t many houses that were spared by Superstorm Sandy. What with the wind and the flooding and a six-alarm fire that consumed 111 homes, there are few that made it through unscathed. But even in these few, more than 100 days after the storm has passed, you won’t hear a dial-tone. The storm took out the telephone lines, just as it took out the power and disrupted plumbing and septic systems. According to Habitat for Humanity’s Jim Killoran, who is still on the ground helping people rebuild, there are areas in New York City that may never see wireline telephone service again.
Hurricane Sandy was unpredictable because it was a disaster; but what happens in a disaster is not unpredictable. Power is cut. Communications are severed. And emergency responders must operate in a new and unfamiliar environment. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, communications are essential to locate areas of crises, coordinate the response, and manage resources. The United States government understands this, which is why it is constructing a nationwide public-safety broadband network through the First Responders Network Authority, or FirstNet.
Every disaster threatens communications networks. Whether its hurricanes, floods, or earthquakes—or non-natural events—all ground infrastructure such as power lines, cellular base stations, fiber-optic cables and telephone lines are vulnerable to severe damage. First responders prepare for these disruptions by establishing back-up communications networks. Rather than contracting only with one provider, the agency also might contract with a second. But unless the back-up employs a true alternate-path technology, i.e., one that does not rely on terrestrial links (whether fixed or wireless), then both are still susceptible to disruptions on the ground.
The only way to guarantee that first responders have working communications after a disaster is to establish a path-diverse back-up network based on satellite technology. To do this, the government must integrate a fixed satellite service component into FirstNet. Satellite communication is not vulnerable to terrestrial disasters since the communications hub is either onboard the satellite itself (at approximately 24,000 miles above ground in geostationary orbit), or distant from the disaster in a well-protected facility.
Today’s satellite broadband technology has reached performance- and cost-competitiveness with mainstream DSL services, and is routinely combined with wireless mobility applications for many enterprises, such as for Wi-Fi security. It offers the capability of transmitting the same high-speed data and information—including video—that first responders have come to expect from modern broadband connections, and its reliability has broken through the “overcast barrier” that plagued many home satellite dishes in the past. Today, satellite is the communications standard for critical missions in hostile environments, from the battlefields of Afghanistan to the foot-soldiers patrolling the border—and now, the neighborhoods of Breezy Point.
The nation depends on its first responders, but it’s up to us to arm them with the tools they need to get their jobs done. Our first responders cannot do what they do best—save lives—without the vital communications networks needed to make it happen. The government created the FirstNet program to address the challenge of emergency communications. Now, it’s critical to ensure that this network is out of harm’s way.
Tony Bardo is assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes.