The amount and magnitude of natural disasters that have hit the world in the last couple of years is earth-shattering — both literally and figuratively. Their number has more than doubled in the past decades, costing billions of dollars in economic damage and an incalculable loss of thousands of lives. This has been exacerbated further by the existential threat of climate change, which continues to cause an upward trajectory in the occurrence of weather-related hazards.
Such a wicked problem requires an innovative response in the form of life-saving technological solutions. While technology has long been utilized in combatting the threat of disasters, emerging innovations in communications have continuously evolved to provide a potent and holistic disaster management strategy. More recently, governments have harnessed new breakthroughs in satellite technology, not just to reduce the impact of a disaster’s aftermath, but also to avert any potential damage from occurring in the first place.
Satellite communications have been an integral part of disaster relief and prevention for decades. The inherent characteristics of satellite technology put it in a unique position to be an effective tool in combating emergencies compared to its terrestrial-based counterparts. Connectivity powered by satellites remain operational when ground-based infrastructure is compromised during the subsistence or aftermath of a disaster. In this sense, satellites are crucial in providing network redundancy in disaster-critical facilities like hospitals, fire stations, and emergency responders. Network redundancy in disasters is essential in ensuring that communication lines among these facilities remain uncompromised, thereby guaranteeing uninterrupted service delivery in these life-or-death situations.
Apart from infrastructure resiliency, satellites emerge as the paramount choice in disaster management programs because of their wide coverage, availability, and ease of deployment. More often than not, most of those affected by calamities are those in remote or underserved areas that terrestrial networks are unable to reach. The lack of access of these areas to vital communication systems makes them vulnerable when disasters strike. This is especially true for low-income island nations, who suffer the most devastating impacts of climate-related emergencies.
Conversely, even in the presence of terrestrial networks, satellite communication could play a complementary role. Mobile networks are usually the first resource utilized by communities and responders in the event of disasters, making them susceptible to network congestion in these perilous moments. People unable to access communication tools could be put in extreme danger, as the difference between life-or-death situations could be a matter of seconds. In such a case, satellite networks could be used to handle part of the traffic overloading mobile networks, thus offering a pivotal survival mechanism.
As the space race goes full throttle, many satellite companies have stepped up to the challenge of delivering these life-saving solutions to improve disaster connectivity. Since their inception, satellite operators been a critical partner of many governments globally in providing crucial communications in disaster situations. From providing real-time communications support to powering connectivity through satellite-enabled connectivity, the world’s leading satellite companies have remarkedly provided invaluable assistance to communities around the world.
For instance, during the aftermath of a mining dam collapse in southern Brazil, Viasat was instrumental in setting up a temporary communications network for emergency responders by mounting antennas and equipment on any available surface possible. This allowed the people involved in the mission to respond more effectively to the demands of the situation. More recently, even companies involved in mega-satellite constellations are ensuring that their presence is felt in countries needing internet connectivity the most. During a spate of strong typhoons which hit a few Pacific-island nations, a Low-Earth Orbit satellite operator immediately deployed terminals to ensure unhampered network connection during the course of disaster relief operations.
These partnerships between public sector actors and a private company could be used as a template in supporting a wider scale adaptation of satellites in governments’ disaster management initiatives. Such a collaboration would tremendously improve the responsiveness of states in responding to life-saving emergencies, thus preventing catastrophic damage.
Despite the wide potential that satellite-based connectivity promises in bolstering disaster management efforts, key challenges still remain in achieving a full-scale adaptation of this solution, the most notable of which is the receptiveness of some governments in using new innovations. While satellite companies are very open to helping disaster-stricken areas in responding to their aftermath, they are hindered by various regulatory hurdles or bureaucratic setbacks that prevent satellite solutions from fully achieving their capabilities.
As such, governments, especially those most prone to the threats of natural disasters, should be agile in implementing ways to facilitate the on-the-ground implementation of life-saving satellite connectivity. Regulations that act as barriers to entry should be recalibrated, while red tape should be eased to allow a seamless roll out of these technologies.
Indeed, satellite systems continue to be an invaluable tool in disaster management. However, unlocking their full potential requires a collaborative effort between satellite companies and governments alike. Ensuring a more stable and enduring partnership between private and public sector stakeholders in this space could spell the difference between lives lost and lives saved. VS
Ivan Suarez is a senior policy manager and Carlo Agdamag is a policy analyst for Access Partnership.
Photo caption: The Pioneer Fire, Boise National Forest, Idaho, 2016. Original public domain image from Flickr, U.S. Forest Service. Image via Rawpixel.