Coastal states brace for another hurricane season with satellite networks


According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane recorded in history and the second most expensive after Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Sandy destroyed parts of the Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeastern United States, causing approximately $20 billion in damage and an estimated loss of $50 billion in revenue from interruption to businesses. This year, meteorologists are predicting an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall in the Atlantic Basin including the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and along the U.S. coastline. Many of these states are still in the process of rebuilding and looking for ways to prepare.

When the storms hit last year, local residents were flooded and without power. First responders like FEMA set up shelters and command centers in the immediate aftermath which had power from generators. Those outposts also had communication capability, enabling residents to charge devices and transmit messages to loved ones. In many cases that communications capability was set up via satellite services, which replaced flooded terrestrial connections.

At that time, Hughes Network Systems provided satellite communications services for FEMA and Habitat For Humanity. Now, the company is trying to get the word out about establishing a back up communications network as part of pre-storm planning.

“With Sandy, we had FEMA up and running within 48 hours,” Tony Bardo, assistant vice president for government solutions at Hughes tells CivSource. “Initially, they only had terrestrial services, but those were flooded.”

He explains that, in the event of a hurricane or superstorm, communications infrastructure that is housed underground, can get flooded. Agencies typically try to avoid this by working with multiple vendors as part of continuity and disaster planning thinking that they will get a redundant network. Indeed under the federal Networx contract, allowances are made for agencies to work with multiple vendors in an effort to try and create redundancy.

“The issue is if you go with two terrestrial providers, all you end up with is a duplicate network. In a flood, terrestrial access points are still the same and both will be flooded. With satellite back up, that antenna is usually on the roof and is designed to withstand high winds. If you have power, the failover can then go to satellite, instead of relying on a second, flooded connection,” he says.

For an agency like FEMA, they have to be invited in by a state, as such they rely on restorative services that get stood up in the aftermath.  These restorative services can provide a completely diverse Virtual Private Network (VPN) backup service for locations connected by Wide Area Networks (WAN). Hughes designs, pilots, configures, and integrates a private satellite network with a WAN. After an emergency occurs, communications can be restored within 48 hours using standard VSAT equipment.

According to Bardo, local agencies can plan ahead and set up the dual network leaving FEMA to focus on restorative services for citizens.  Setting up a network like this can take approximately 45-60 days depending on the number of sites to be included.

“There are a lot of options, once you identify the sites that are mission critical. We also offer part-time service options so agencies don’t have to pay the full freight on what is supposed to be a backup network. These plans give you a certain number of hours per month so you can regularly test the network, and then they go over to full-time in the event of a disaster.”

New routers can detect the failure of the terrestrial connection and change over to the backup satellite network. Bardo notes that satellite technology is also rapidly improving, offering higher capacity and faster connections. “This technology is getting faster, cheaper and better. Ten years ago people thought satellite would be a lot slower but that’s really not the case now.” New high-throughput technology can give users up to 15 Mbps.

“The issue is, people think of buying back up generators, back up servers, putting infrastructure off site. That’s fine, they should be doing that, but if they don’t have a backup network, those additional servers are still going to be useless,” Bardo says.