Storm-resilient communications requires layers of options
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Sep 01, 2020
Hurricane Laura may be the first major storm to make landfall in the United States this summer, but it may not be the last, according to predictions. As Laura demonstrated when it took out power, telecommunications and internet infrastructure when it hit Louisiana on Aug. 27, these natural disasters can test first responders’ ability to communicate.
That’s why hurricane preparedness must be about more than water, food and medical supplies. Responder agencies and federal, state and local governments should also be prepared with layers of communication options.
No one technology can “give you the resiliency, the alternate paths that you use,” said Tony Bardo, assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes Network Systems. “We frequently use the term ‘path diversity.’ Build path diversity in your approach to building the network or even responding to a disaster and trying to set up a network quickly. Try to use as many technologies as you can.”
Terrestrial lines are the most vulnerable, he said, because they are mostly underground and susceptible to destruction from flooding. Cell towers are also at risk for damage. More than 68% of cell towers in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes in southwest Louisiana were offline after the storm, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser reported.
FirstNet, the nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated for use by first responders, is great for giving rescue teams priority communications, but that works only if the wireless network infrastructure is intact or can be reassembled from deployable towers.
Satellites, which sit 20,000 miles above the tumult, are the last line of defense.
“Cell phones are quite handy; however, they connect by towers that are connected to terrestrial lines. If those terrestrial lines are disrupted because of the hurricane, that’s a problem,” Bardo said. Communities that want to support responders after a disasters should not only have a good terrestrial network, but they should look for key locations where they can put in satellite as a backup so they can continue to operate.
Hughes’ very small aperture terminals bridge an important communications gap, he said. For instance, sometimes landlines are restored within 48 hours, but immediately after a disaster is “a critical 48 hours where [VSAT] could connect responders and officials.”
VSAT terminals are two-way satellite stations with a .98-meter antenna that access geosynchronous orbit satellites to relay data to other terminals. The systems support multiple applications, including high-speed internet access, videoconferencing and voice-over-IP.
“Satellite is able to continue to provide secure communications for communities and local governments,” Bardo said. “It doesn’t provide the great stature and capacity that the fiber lines provide, but they can be quickly deployed in situations where communications among people in headquarters and other agencies are necessary to share data, to share images.”
When Hurricane Maria wiped out much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed VSAT terminals. Whereas the system can usually be set up within hours, installation took days or even weeks, Bardo said, because roads and bridges were destroyed. But once emergency installers got through, FEMA personnel were trained on installation to speed the deployment.
“For the longest time, we were the telephone company in Puerto Rico because we might have been one of the few things working,” he said.
As communications began to be restored on the island, FEMA opted to keep the terminals onsite – a prophetic decision, given the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck the next year. This time, because the units were already in place, response teams activated them and had satellite communications running quickly.
“This is what we stress to the emergency management agencies in the states and the military – critical federal agencies, critical state agencies that see if they can prepare,” Bardo said. “You never know where all of the damage is going to happen. A hurricane has a mind all of its own, but if you have in place resilient communications at your key locations, that’s a great start.”
Editor's note: This article was changed Sept. 2 to correct the size of the VSAT antenna.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.