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Fostering a more collaborative and coordinated disaster response with satellite

In a recent series of articles on the Government Satellite Report, members of the SES Government Solutions team profiled some exciting new satellite solutions and technologies that have been introduced to make satellite communications easier and more seamless for the government agencies and organizations that need it.

These solutions included managed satellite services that deliver an end-to-end network that is faster and easier to deploy for military and government organizations. They also included a new generation of turnkey mobile satellite solutions that can be easily moved where needed and utilized to deliver a large area of high-throughput, low-latency connectivity to those that need it via 5G or WiFi.

And while these solutions sound exciting in their ability to make satellite more accessible and easy to use for government and military organizations, we wanted to learn more about how they could make a difference in specific government use cases. In particular, we wanted to learn how a common scenario where satellite is often necessary – emergency and disaster response and recovery operations – could benefit from these new technologies.

To get a window into the ways these new satellite services and solutions could transform emergency and disaster response efforts and operations, we sat down for an in-depth discussion with Rashid Neighbors, who is the Vice President of Mobility and Integrated Solutions at ‎SES Government Solutions. During our discussion, we asked Rashid about how each of these solutions could be used in emergency response, what makes them different, and how they could effectively work together to transform the way the government communicates and operates in emergencies.

Here is what he said:

Government Satellite Report (GSR): There’s a long-held belief that satellite isn’t user-friendly. That rolling out satellite communications in emergencies isn’t seamless or possible at the speed necessary for emergency response. How is the satellite industry working to change this? What’s already been done?

Rashid Neighbors: No one ever wants to be in a situation where they have to use satellite communications because a natural disaster has destroyed terrestrial communications infrastructure. However, SATCOM is best suited to quickly provide connectivity in these sorts of scenarios.

We know that these scenarios require communications that are reliable, easy to use, and quickly deployable. So, the satellite industry has worked aggressively to tailor our solutions, make them more user friendly and eliminate a lot of the expensive hardware necessary to utilize SATCOM. One of the ways we’re doing this is by introducing managed services and new solutions that deliver the full end-user experience. This ensures that satellite services are there to meet mission-critical communications requirements in all situations.

GSR: Some of your associates at SES GS have recently contributed articles to the Government Satellite Report about some exciting new technologies and solutions that appear to be making satellite service more scalable, flexible, user-friendly and affordable. Included in that were the SKALA Global Network and new “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile satellite solutions. Let’s start with SKALA. How can the SKALA Global Network be used in emergency and disaster response scenarios?

Rashid Neighbors: In emergency response situations, SKALA is an excellent solution for keeping individual first responders and tactical operators connected with cost-effective terminals and hardware to utilize it. These off-the-shelf commercial solutions can be deployed quickly and inexpensively to meet the basic communications requirements of responders in the field.

In fact, an inexpensive fixed antenna on a non-pen mount that people in the industry often refer to as a “leave behind antenna” because of its low price point and mobility is all that’s really necessary to access the SKALA Global Network. And those antennas are excellent in wildfires and other natural disaster scenarios. They can be deployed quickly and easily and communications can be established in very short fashion. The lower price point of these antennas also means that local and federal government organizations and emergency response organizations could even preposition some of the equipment across the country to help further accelerate response.

“Think about the tactical operators responding to a hurricane that knocked out cellular networks…SKALA is an affordable, quickly-deployed solution to get those individuals the basic connectivity and communications services they need to save lives and safely do their jobs.” – Rashid Neighbors

Using the SKALA Global Network and these “leave behind antennas,” government organizations could deliver moderate throughput communications capabilities such as email, voice, access to situational awareness and mapping applications, and other services enabled by basic connectivity. This makes the service very cost-effective, while still delivering everything the first responder needs in the field to stay connected.

GSR: What about these “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile satellite solutions? Why would they be an exciting solution for emergency and disaster relief initiatives? What kinds of capabilities could that enable?

Rashid Neighbors: Our new, turnkey mobile connectivity solution set is extremely exciting for a number of reasons. They’re entirely integrated, self-contained and weather-proof solutions that are designed to work with our O3b MEO satellite network. The O3b MEO satellite constellation orbits at 5,000 miles versus 22,000 miles for traditional GEO satellites, which enables it to not only offer incredibly high throughputs, but do so with very low latency.

Combining O3b MEO satellite service with these new “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity options means that high-throughput, low latency connectivity can be delivered to practically any scenario and environment. These solutions are easily airlifted – or moved by forklift or crane – to where they’re needed. Once power is supplied, they begin providing an area of connectivity via 5G or WiFi, whether they’re on a ship at sea or on land.

“Imagine a hurricane hits a large, well-populated region within the United States [and] knocks out all communications infrastructure…there’s no existing communications for first responders and the emergency response and relief agencies and organizations – agencies like FEMA – to use to stay connected and coordinated when they get boots on the ground.” – Rashid Neighbors


This makes it incredibly easy for the military or an emergency response organization to quickly build out a WiFi or 5G infrastructure that can deliver connectivity for a massive number of people. In our internal tests, we’ve had thousands of users connected via this device, and they universally said the WiFi experience was similar to what they receive from their broadband connectivity at home.

So, how does this translate to a natural disaster or emergency situation? When disaster strikes, emergency response organizations come onsite and work to establish a center of operations where they can manage the situation, monitor tactical operators, provide care and services to impacted residents and perform other operations. If we airlift or trailer this mobile connectivity solution to this center of operations, we can deliver high-throughput, low-latency, broadband-like connectivity for the entire area to help support those operations and provide communications for the individuals close by.

This solution delivers so much capacity and bandwidth that the capabilities are basically limitless.

Individuals responsible for managing and directing response and rescue efforts could use it to access and monitor real-time, HD video feeds from drones and other sensors. They can use it to download large reports with images and maps. They can use the connectivity to aggregate and analyze an incredible amount of data. Field hospitals could use it to access and transmit medical histories and imagery. They could even use it to deliver telemedicine services into the field for victims of disasters.

GSR: How are these two solutions different? If you were an organization responsible for emergency and disaster response, why would you choose one over the other? Are there cost considerations? Hardware considerations? Differences in capabilities?

Rashid Neighbors: The major difference between the two solutions is the amount of throughput that they deliver. The SKALA Mobile Network is a solution that can be accessed with hardware that has an incredibly small footprint and that can deliver connectivity to the very edge – the tactical operator out in the field conducting search and rescue operations and other disaster response operations.

These individuals – forward operators – don’t require the immense capacity of the “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution. Instead, they require mission-critical, basic communications services in locations and scenarios where they have no other option because other networks are not available.

“All of these organizations and agencies are embracing digital transformation initiatives, network-enabled platforms, and applications to improve their operations. Solutions like SKALA and the “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution are just extending access to those solutions out to the tactical edge…” – Rashid Neighbors

Think about the tactical operators responding to a hurricane that knocked out cellular networks. Or the crew responding to a fire in a national forest where cell towers were never constructed. SKALA is an affordable, quickly-deployed solution to get those individuals the basic connectivity and communications services they need to save lives and safely do their jobs.

The “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution is a larger footprint solution that delivers much higher throughputs and capacity. If SKALA is capable of connecting the forward operators, the “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution would be used to deliver mission-critical connectivity to the command center.

Together, they can ensure that every individual and organization responsible for a coordinated, effective emergency response operation has access to the communications services that they need, when and where they need them.

GSR: How would the use of these solutions be better than what emergency and first responders are working with today? What additional capabilities would it give them? What other benefits would it enable?

Rashid Neighbors: Imagine a hurricane hits a large, well-populated region – or even an island – within the United States. This hurricane knocks out all communications infrastructure and terrestrial networks, so there’s no existing communications for first responders and the emergency response and relief agencies and organizations – agencies like FEMA – to use to stay connected and coordinated when they get boots on the ground.

In the past, the tactical operators and forward operators going out into the disaster-impacted areas to look for survivors and deliver aid to local residents would be resigned to just line-of-sight radio communications. This would enable them to have voice communications with those close by, but they wouldn’t have the reach-back connectivity needed to interact with the people that support them.

The agencies establishing command centers and base camps would also lack communications, hindering their ability to gather intelligence on the situation and have complete situational awareness. Agencies like FEMA – which functions to file claims and deliver economic relief and assistance to victims of natural disasters – would often revert to paper forms. This would drastically slow down the claims process.

Now, think about the same disaster response situation with the SKALA Global Network and the “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution in place.

The command center where operations were planned and monitored could have high-throughput, low-latency connectivity to support all of its operations. Forward, tactical operators could have basic communications services that not only allow them to stay connected with other emergency responders in the field, but to report back and communicate with the people that are providing them with support and managing operations.

Finally, an agency like FEMA could be using connected tablets and other ruggedized mobile devices to gather claims information and file claims. This would eliminate errors and lost claims information, while also expediting the process.

All of these organizations and agencies are embracing digital transformation initiatives, network-enabled platforms, and applications to improve their operations. Solutions like SKALA and the “Roll-On, Roll-Off” mobile connectivity solution are just extending access to those solutions out to the tactical edge – to the places where terrestrial networks either never existed, or no longer are available.

To learn more about the role that satellite solutions can play in emergency preparedness and disaster response, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, ‘Emergency Response From Space.”

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