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Lessons in disaster relief: the importance of communications resiliency
One of Hughes most important missions is to provide access to, and ensure, reliable communications services during times of emergency. During the devastating 2017 hurricane season Hughes played an active role in supporting several disaster relief efforts, including providing essential communications capabilities and assisting impacted regions as they work to restore their networks—which is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. These experiences demonstrate the critical need for emergency preparedness plans and resilient communications infrastructure before disasters strike.
Restoring Lost Connectivity
Responding to the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey, Jose, and Maria, Hughes employed its market-leading HughesNet high-speed satellite service—operating over a three satellite, geostationary orbit (GEO), Ka-band constellation that covers the continental U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)—to support relief efforts. In Texas, Hughes to continue to do so until their work is complete. In November 2017 alone, FEMA and other agencies relied on Hughes satellite-based services to place more than 30,000 calls. In Puerto Rico, Hughes and ResponseForce1 supplied the San Cristobal Hospital in Ponce worked with ResponseForce1 to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in providing satellite Internet access and Voice over IP (VoIP) services to the public at community shelters, so people could stay in touch with family and friends.
FEMA has used Hughes services extensively during its response efforts and plans with very small aperture terminals (VSATs) and solar generators, helping the hospital get connected to the web and back operating. Additionally, satellite Internet services were quickly restored to retail customers, such as wholesalers, pharmacies, and many small businesses, enabling them to carry on after the local economy came to a screeching halt. Transactions made possible included processing insurance claims, credit card payments, and government-issued food stamp (debit card) purchases. In addition to supporting FEMA, Hughes has worked with other key government agencies in the region, such as the National Weather Service (NWS), Department of Defense (DoD), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the USVI, more than 1500 new HughesNet activations have been initiated for both government and private sector users on the islands.
Infrastructure and Preparedness
The 2017 experience in these communities demonstrates the vulnerability of terrestrial communications in the face of natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, which can wash out, or disable groundbased infrastructure. Satellite-based infrastructures offer true alternate communications paths not exposed to the same vulnerabilities, making them essential for resilient and reliable communications—either as backup or primary networks. Critical facilities in particular—such as schools, utilities, police and fire stations, hospitals, and FEMA offices—should be outfitted with resilient satellite communications to augment their terrestrial networks, whether wireless or landline, including backup of 9-1-1 services.
The Time for Preparedness Is Now
While there is no controlling the weather, government agencies and communities must seek to bolster their communications network resiliency before the next disasters strike. That requires federal, state, and local governments to include path diversity in their standards and best practices, and to explore the adoption of such requirements in infrastructure funding criteria. Governments must ensure that adequate funding is available to enable communications to remain operational during even the worst disasters. As demonstrated in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, given the availability and high quality of today’s latest satellite services, no community should be left unprepared to recover communications capabilities again. Implementing satellite path diversity has proven to significantly enhance network resiliency in the wake of disasters. As a case in point, following Hurricane Maria’s departure from Puerto Rico, a new large-scale emergency was taking place on the island. The 90-year-old Guajataca Dam, located between the towns of San Sabastian, Quebradillas, and Isabela, was compromised from severe structural damage. While the entire island was without power and terrestrial communications, the NWS had an existing Hughes VSAT at their local station which they connected to their power generator, enabling them to make emergency calls to both the DoD and FEMA informing them of the impending crisis. Because of this pathdiverse communications, NWS was able to issue an immediate evacuation order from the U.S. Federal Government, alerting the estimated 70,000 people who lived and worked downstream from the dam. Subsequently, the DoD rushed emergency resources to the dam and restored it to a stable and operational condition, mitigating a potential catastrophe.