Satellite Services for Disaster Recovery and Relief

05-06 Feb 2020


Ilaria Bencivenga
Policy Analyst
[email protected]

Earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, floods, storms and industrial accidents claim human lives and cause serious damage to property regardless of a country’s economic position and territorial borders. 2017 and 2018 were the costliest years for weather-related disasters on record, with total losses coming to USD 653 billion. While this is unavoidable, the impacts on affected populations can be minimised by implementing an efficient disaster management policy, using a diverse range of communication solutions – for example, Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) and Mobile Satellite Services (MSS).

Why Satellites?

Although the circumstances and context surrounding each natural disaster and emergency are different, there are two recurring factors. The time and location of each disaster is unpredictable, and the resulting damage includes loss of infrastructure, especially communication infrastructure, such as those used for local terrestrial-based telecommunications.

Satellite communication tackles the need for on-site transportation of telecommunication equipment. Satellite transmissions using small aperture earth stations, such as fixed VSATs, vehicle-mounted earth stations (VMES) and transportable earth stations are the most viable solutions to provide emergency telecommunication services for relief operations. FSS, together with MSS, can quickly overcome the loss of the local terrestrial-based telecommunication infrastructure. In view of their independence from the local infrastructure, wide coverage area, and ease of deployment, FSS and MSS can provide immediate means of telecommunication to assist with public communications and relief operations.

VSATs, mobile-satellite terminals and ancillary equipment may be ubiquitously deployed and can perform a variety of functions including, but not limited to, voice and data communication, field reporting, data collection, position information and image transmission.

Real-life Examples

After an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, satellite experts analysed images to monitor the state of the country and damage to infrastructure. Satellite imagery provided detailed data on which roads and bridges disappeared under the rubble, enabling intel and aid agencies to send supplies to those in need.

To overcome the limitations of terrestrial networks during seasonal wildfires in Portugal in June 2017, Altice/PT, a telecommunications provider, deployed satellite backhaul as a backup service for the terrestrial network. If the terrestrial backhaul failed, satellite was used to connect the core network until the terrestrial backhaul network was restored.

Japan’s constant threat of earthquakes has led it to develop an FSS system which seizes P-waves by seismographs closely deployed to the epicentre and transmits them to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). They, in turn, analyse the data and estimate the expected arrival time and the seismic intensity of the principal motion at each location (“Earthquake Early Warning”). FSS is used as satellite networks cannot be impaired by a natural disaster and information is received reliably even though the receiving site is close to the hypocentre.

Satellite communication can support governments, UN agencies, NGO-aid agencies, military forces, hospital organisations, airlines, and television networks when natural disasters occur. Information can be distributed over large areas and can be used to inform agencies and enable them to make better decisions, coordinate help and intervention, inform the population and announce relief provisions, and take preventative actions to minimise damage.

International and Regional Regulatory Considerations

At an international level, the implications of satellite communications regarding disaster relief has been widely acknowledged, notably by the Tampere Convention, which aims to ease the deployment of telecommunication facilities during a disaster and has been ratified by several jurisdictions. The ITU provides valuable recommendations on the use of satellite services for disaster response and relief and there are a number of agreements between the ITU and FSS and MSS satellite operators/service providers regarding the use of FSS/MSS systems for disaster-related telecommunications.

The ITU also recommends that local administrations consider the global and/or regional frequency bands/ranges identified for FSS and MSS to be used for emergency and disaster relief in their national planning. Thus, the importance of satellite communications in disaster relief needs to be translated into the pre-planning of spectrum and equipment that is to be used. The ultimate challenge is at a regional level, where national regulatory authorities need to implement ad hoc licensing frameworks for the deployment of FSS and MSS for disaster relief. The more accessible the licensing regime, the more efficient and effective recovery from disasters will be.

As several satellite operators intending to provide FSS/MSS for disaster relief are already recognised and registered as telecommunications operators in many jurisdictions, the most pressing matter is ensuring readily accessible authorisation schemes to secure the right of use for frequencies. National regulatory authorities are encouraged to make spectrum accessible for these technologies, which have proven to be crucial in emergency situations.

Looking Forward

Although natural disasters have a devastating effect on countries and their populations, satellite communications can help predict, monitor and assist in providing relief to those affected. International and regional cooperation is necessary to ensure the best satellite imagery and communications are available for disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. Although there has been some progress in this area, political and legal challenges remain. The need for a more harmonised framework for satellite services in disaster recovery is now more apparent than ever.

Access Partnership will be attending the 5th annual Action on Disaster Relief in Panama on 5-6 February 2020. We can help you obtain Host Nations Agreements for the provision of satellite services and ensure compliance with local regulations. If you’d like to speak with our consultant on the ground, please email [email protected].

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