Communications during disaster response efforts is critical. It allows first responders to share information about hard-hit areas and helps residents check in with loved ones. Today, satellite is also empowering new technologies, such as drones and the Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, to further help first responders on the ground when cellular and fiber networks are down.
First response and technology organizations meet at Operation Convergent Response (OCR) sponsored by Verizon and Nokia, held this year November 19 – 21 at the Guardian Centers in Perry, Georgia. We met with Jeff Schweitzer, Asymmetric Solutions Architect at Verizon and Stuart Burson, Associate Director, Satellite Solutions Group, Verizon Response Team, to discuss the evolution of satellite in disaster response.
What is the goal of OCR and why is it important for satcom players to participate?
Jeff Schweitzer: The goals for OCR 2017 and 2018 were to showcase the “Art of the Possible.” This year, our goal is to showcase how those technologies matured through live action demos through a model of “Ready, Respond, Recover and Rebuild” from a crisis. It’s important for all satcom players, as we play a critical role during the front end of the Respond and Recover role and a complimentary role during the Rebuild period when traditional infrastructure is being rebuilt.
What makes establishing communications for disaster response different or more difficult than non-emergency events? (For example, responding to a wildfire versus setting up for a political rally.)
Stuart Burson: They are different because the landscape of needs for disaster response changes by the minute, while a planned event is usually static and time is on your side. For a disaster deployment, working with incident commanders to assess needs versus capability, physical access for our assets and most importantly, access for the first responders and victims once on site presents challenges you don’t face with a pre-planned event.
When does satellite play an essential role in crisis response?
Stuart: There are events when satellite may be the only form of reliable communications during a disaster. It plays a vital role shortly after the impact of a disaster if cellular and fiber networks are damaged or congested. Satcom also plays a vital and lifesaving role in communities affected by a crisis. Verizon brings an overlay by providing traditional voice and data communications over satellite, as well as delivering LTE in the impacted area while using satellite as the backhaul transport to the global network. Satellite is critical for first responders to perform their jobs and to enable victims to contact their loved ones and apply for emergency aid.
From your time working in the satcom world, how have you noticed the role of satellite changing in relation to disaster response efforts?
Stuart: So much has changed during my 20 years in the satcom industry. Think about what communications looked like before there were cellular networks. Traditional copper networks would suffer heavily during a disaster, leaving satcom to fill the communications need. During that pre-cellular period, the essential need during disaster response was for voice communications, and it took a lot of bandwidth to support just 24 simultaneous analog calls. I say analog to remind us that before companies like ST Engineering iDirect were developing IP-enabled satcom products, our industry had become somewhat stagnant, as cellular was moving forward at a much faster IP technology pace than satellite.
How do you view satcom working in disaster response in the future?
Stuart: We will continue to add satellite capabilities to our wireless response fleet so they can respond much faster. We are using more high-throughput satellite product offerings, like those from ST Engineering iDirect, to augment the bandwidth required for LTE communications. Bandwidth needs are always growing and satcom will be critical.
What do you think is the biggest challenge satellite operators and service providers must overcome to play a bigger role in disaster response in the future?
Stuart: Meeting growing bandwidth needs is one of the challenges. As faster speeds from terrestrial and wireless networks come online, having solutions that can at least partially cover their absence during disasters is paramount. The industry needs to get the word out that in a crisis, satellite will still be the main technology that can be counted on to provide consistent communications. In addition, satellite service providers must be integrated into the software defined network. As disasters cause network availability to become transient, it is essential that satellite services participate in the intelligent WAN.
What trends in satellite and disaster response are you looking forward to watching develop over the next few years?
Stuart: I’m excited to see communications-on-the-move develop as that equipment matures and comes down in price. We are looking forward to the solutions ST Engineering iDirect is focusing on, such as 5G integration, Internet of Things solutions and advances in cellular/satellite backhaul technologies. As high-throughput satellites continue to grow, we are looking forward to new technologies that can take advantage of their capabilities.
ST Engineering iDirect’s iQ LTE remote allows users to toggle between cellular and satellite connectivity instantly. How could first responders use this during a disaster?
Jeff: Toggling between cellular and satellite is a critical feature we’ve been using for years in our networks, and the iQ LTE router will make our design much more efficient. While the macro network is offline, the iQ LTE remote would operate on satellite networks (satellite backhaul, etc.) as needed, when the LTE network returns, they could use the LTE network as a primary means of communication.
Are there any specific innovations in crisis response applications that you think will plausibly hit the market sooner rather than later?
Jeff: Multi-access edge compute applications of all kinds will find their way to the edge quickly. Localized compute, synthesis and store/forward via satcom. Ingestion of external products to augment the local computational model (e.g. satcom delivered weather forecast, NGIA imagery, initial damage assessment data.)
At ST Engineering iDirect, we believe satellite players must collaborate to integrate into the end-to-end 5G network. How could an access technology-agnostic 5G network impact disaster response in the future?
Jeff: Verizon’s Software Defined Perimeter deployed in the context of Joint Broadband Network (JBN) topologies permit aggregate use of commercial satcom infrastructure to offer flexibility between network modalities. Combinations of constellation providers might be leveraged to deliver commercial aggregate bandwidth to on-the-ground implementations that incorporate either 5G, 4G/LTE, Private LTE, MANET, Wi-Fi Mesh, Li-Fi and other emerging communications architectures in combination with edge-based compute appliances.