Natural Disasters Are Breaking Land-Based Communication Systems: Connecting First Responders in a Disconnected World

In a crisis, communication is often the first thing to become unavailable, yet it is the most important tool in saving lives. Natural disasters, including the recent Hurricane Maria, have tested the world’s emergency response teams, and the communication systems responsible for connecting first responders. During a disaster, communications systems are responsible for ensuring that first responders and command centers remain connected. When life and death hang in the balance, there is no substitute for reliable, uninterrupted connectivity. Despite having dedicated bandwidth and infrastructure, current land-based communications systems continue to fail first responders and mobile emergency response teams. The people they are charged with protecting and rescuing are also in danger as fixed, land-based communications systems are often damaged, destroyed, or become unreliable during and after the event. The demand for satellite-based mobile connectivity for first responders is causing them to look for better solutions that they can use on the move—taking in information while on their way to the disaster zone—to build situational awareness while preparing to serve and save others.

How Fixed Communications Networks Fail First Responders and Governments

In the wake of any disaster, the stability and accessibility of the terrestrial communication systems can play a significant role in the outcome of the event. Historically, phased array antennas have been the only solution, but with significant power requirements, these antennas become unreliable or unusable in a crisis where power and communications are affected. In March 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in 15,854 deaths, 9,677 injuries, and 3,155 missing persons. Reports indicated damage to, or loss of, roughly 119.54 million cellular lines, 1.5 million land-based telephone lines, 6300 km of overhead cables, 1700 km of underground cables, and 65,000 telephone poles, in addition to 12 demolished and 16 flooded communication buildings. Increasing losses and suspension of terrestrial-bound communication networks was caused by the increase of peak traffic to nine times the norm and the nearly two-month timeframe for repair and restoration. Ken Okaniwa, of The Guardian, reported in 2011, that “due to the severe damage to the transportation and communications infrastructure, responding rapidly and effectively was a huge logistical challenge.” For first responders especially, reliance on both the damaged primary emergency communication networks, and the redundant use of public communication networks can pose a serious challenge when damage decreases the available network capacities, and overburdening slows down and reduces the availability of what’s left.

Satellite-Connected Mobile Communications Keep First Responders Online and On the Move

The demand for these kinds of uniquely capable satellite communications services for first responders has only increased because of recent natural disasters. As a result of damage caused to terrestrial communication infrastructure by Hurricane Maria, more than 90% of Puerto Rico’s cellular networks went down. Ten days later, emergency personnel finally made direct contact with the island’s 78 municipalities, while residents and first responders remained without cellular networks for communication and were turning to low tech options like HAM radio and AM radio, and to satellite phones and other satellite communication options. Reports indicated that “communication after a disaster of this scale isn’t just a matter of convenience; it’s life and death…[and] more people will die…especially if they have no way to call for help.” The critical importance of instant-on, reliable, immediately re-deployable satellite communications in the aftermath of a disaster—when minutes, hours, and days mean lives saved—is why high-tech companies like Kymeta are creating and distributing satellite communication solutions that are unlike anything ever deployed to date.

What Makes Satellite Communications More Reliable?

While satellite communications require an antenna on the ground, the service part of the infrastructure—satellites—remain high above Earth’s surface, in orbit. Phased arrays and traditional dish antennas used to communicate with these satellites bring many vulnerabilities and limitations with them when deployed into a disaster zone. Metamaterials-based antenna technology, like Kymeta’s flat panel, no-moving parts antenna, can equip an entire force, requiring little maintenance between deployments; and these antennas are always ready when first responders get the signal to go. Affixed to the top or embedded into the roof of a first response vehicle, Kymeta’s flat panel, electronically-steered antennas provide ubiquitous connectivity on the pause and on the go—without the weight or complexity of antennas with moving parts—and can be moved out of harm’s way as easily as the vehicle can be moved.

Mobile Connectivity Makes its Move…to the Sky

Satellites are becoming more powerful and more plentiful with each passing year, providing first responders the opportunity to move their communication infrastructure to the sky for added availability and protection from weather events and other disasters at the terrestrial level. But moving emergency communications to space doesn’t mean much if the ground link remains fixed in place, where this critical component of the communication infrastructure remains at risk. Making antennas mobile dramatically increases first responders’ ability to keep their communications protected and connected all the time.

Satellite-Enabled Mobile Connectivity Will Make the World a Safer Place

With each additional disaster we experience, the need for reliable, space-based communications infrastructure is further emphasized, and the failure of current ground systems to provide this critical service to first responders is exposed. While typical ground communications will continue to be disrupted by extreme natural and manmade disasters, space-based communications paired with mobile antenna systems can change the way first responders both connect and respond to incidents of all types. Mobile satellite antennas provide first responders with the necessary reliable communications to see the whole situation no matter where they are, and to coordinate with each other and the communities they serve in real time—both during and after a disaster—in a way that has never been possible. Employing fully mobile satellite communications systems ensures first responders will stay connected and on the move to help those who truly need them, even when the ground-based networks fail.