• Satellite-enabled communications can fill gaps in communication where communication infrastructure has been damaged or is lacking.
  • Satellite phones can be an important tool for coordinating rescue operations though cost and usability are concerns.
  • Alternatively, satellite-based systems such as the WISECOM system can be used to reestablish local communications through easily transportable equipment.
  • The WISECOM system has potential but real-world testing will be required, such as through a pilot program.

Satellite Phones

A potential option for addressing the loss of communications after a disaster is the use of satellite communication devices. A notable example of this that was employed in Puerto Rico is the use of satellite phones. Because satellite phones connect to satellite networks rather than land-based communication towers, they can reliably function when local communications infrastructure has been damaged; they can also be used in areas where infrastructure was lacking to begin with. [1] In addition, these devices can be made to be both impact and water resistant. [2] Thus, satellite phones seem suited for use in coordinating rescue operations by facilitating communications between first responders no matter where they might be or the state of local communication networks. 

For similar reasons, satellite phones would also be useful for reestablishing and maintaining communications with affected communities that might otherwise be cut off. This way, they can not only inform first responders of their condition but also request the help they need. For this purpose, within a week of Hurricane Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had sent 120 satellite phones, distributed amongst the mayors of various communities, to aid rescue and relief operations. [3] Even so, there were issues with some of the satellite phones, and FEMA did not have enough working satellite phones available to adequately distribute them to the island’s mayors. [4]

Figure 1: Puerto Rico’s Municipalities. A map showing the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico [5]

Given that there are 78 mayors in Puerto Rico, [6] one for each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities (see Fig. 1), if FEMA acquired at least two satellite phones for each mayor, the extra serving as a backup, then a rough estimate would put the cost of acquiring these satellite phones around $265,044.00 at minimum; subscription plans would also need to be bought for each phone separately, which would in total cost around $286,884.00 per year for each satellite phone to have an annual plan of 1500 minutes or 25 hours. [7] This amounts to a total cost of $551,928.00 at minimum, considering only one year’s worth of subscription costs.

If enough satellite phones were bought and there were plans to distribute them before another disaster such as Hurricane Maria struck to ensure communities remained in contact with first responders, we suggest that training and user manuals be provided with any device that is distributed. This is because according to Chris Tuttle – the Office of Emergency Communications coordinator for FEMA Region II (see Fig. 1), which oversees FEMA-related programs in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and eight tribal nations [8] – many of the mayors who had been given satellite phones in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria were not using their devices effectively due to inexperience using satellite phones. [9] In these user manuals, illustrations for procedures such as activating a satellite phone should be included to clarify any technical information provided. In addition, for Puerto Rico these manuals should be available in both English and Spanish to ensure that the information is fully accessible.

While satellite phones are suited for use by mayors to ensure their communities remain in contact with first responders in the case of a disaster and for use by the first responders to coordinate rescue operations, satellite phones may not be an ideal solution to address the loss of communications after a storm in general due to issues of access. As FEMA (2018) notes in their report on the 2017 Hurricane Season, the demand for satellite phones was greater than the supply that they had available to them. Although 5000 satellite phones had been distributed by the Iridium Communications company, which runs the Iridium Satellite Network that enabled those devices, [9] this was clearly still not enough for everyone to have a satellite phone. A major barrier to an individual acquiring a satellite phone for themselves would be cost. Barring distribution from the government or companies, an individual satellite phone can cost a few hundred dollars at minimum; this cost is further compounded by annual subscription plans that are needed for the phones to connect to a satellite network. [2] 

The JISCC System

An alternate form of satellite-enabled communications that could bypass the issues of cost and usability can be seen with the National Guard’s Joint Incident Site Communications Capability (JISCC) system. Having been tested during Hurricane Katrina, JISCC systems were deployed in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria to fill communication gaps caused by storm damage. [10] 

The JISCC system is a flexible framework that acts as a local service provider and mobile command center for wherever it is deployed. Each JISCC system (see Fig. 2) consists of equipment that uses satellite networks to enable services such as high-frequency radio, video conferencing, and data transfer (“Rapid Joint Incident Site Communications,” 2010). In addition, JISCC systems can bridge calls between civilian first responders and military radios and cell phones to coordinate rescue efforts. [3] The system is designed to be mobile, with all necessary equipment fitting into an 18-foot trailer that has its own lighting and power generator; the system can also be airlifted to where it is needed. [10] 

The Joint Incident Site Communications Capability system offers a communications bridge to first responders tasked with saving lives and protecting property during the domestic emergencies that resulted from this year’s historically catastrophic hurricane season. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Bennett
Figure 2: The JISCC System. An example setup of JISCC system equipment (Bennett, 2017) [11]

Taken altogether, the system has a greater potential reach than merely passing out a certain number of satellite phones. Even so, the primary purpose of the JISCC system is to provide connectivity for rescue operations and is not directly accessible by civilians, especially not for uses such as contacting relatives. However, there is a theoretical framework that has been developed that is similar to the JISCC system but extends service to both first responders and civilians alike: the Wireless Infrastructure over Satellite for Emergency Communications (WISECOM) System. 

The WISECOM System

The product of a research project funded by the European Commission, the WISECOM system is designed with the goal of reestablishing communications services in an area within 24 hours of a disaster. This would not only help minimize the time needed for victims to receive treatment but also help coordinate first responders and rescue efforts. [12] To achieve this, the WISECOM system consists of three segments (see Fig. 3): the “On-Disaster Site Segment,” which allows for people in a disaster-affected area to connect into the WISECOM system; the “Disaster-Safe Segment,” which provides users access to public networks such as the Internet among other functions; and the “Transport Domain,” which handles the satellite connection between both segments. [13]

Figure 3: The WISECOM System. A diagram illustrating the general framework of the WISECOM system [14]

An important part of the system for reestablishing communications in an area is the WISECOM Access Terminal (WAT), which is the physical device that is brought to a disaster area by rescue forces. Through the WAT, the WISECOM system could bypass the barriers of cost and knowledge seen with satellite phones because a principal feature of the WAT’s design is that it allows people to use their personal devices to make calls, send SMS, and access the Internet. [13] For this purpose, the WISECOM system has a wide reach as it is designed to provide a coverage area of up to 1 kilometer within line of sight of the device. [14]

In addition, the WAT can also be adapted to suit the changing communications needs of an area as it begins to recover. This is because there are two versions of the WAT: the first version uses the Inmarsat Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite system while the second version uses the Digital Video Broadcasting-Return Channel via Satellite (DVB-RCS) network. The first version can be carried by one person and deployed in five minutes by non-technicians to reconnect people in area to public networks such as the Internet as soon as possible after a storm. Meanwhile, the second version extends the coverage of the first version and allows for high bandwidth services such as video communications. [14]

WISECOM has also been designed with a feature called Location Based Services (LBS), which could be of immense use for first responders. This feature allows for rescue teams to send information about the location and condition of a victim through a personal digital assistant (PDA) back to a control center through the WISECOM system. Once received, the data can be compiled and accessed by other rescue teams to help coordinate and prioritize relief operations. [13] 

Considering these points, the WISECOM system presents a model for restoring communications following a disaster that accommodates both the needs of first responders and civilians. It should be noted that the overall structure of WISECOM remains mostly theoretical at the moment. While it was successfully tested in a 2008 live trial that simulated the response to an emergency [13], the WISECOM system has yet to be implemented following an actual disaster. Even so, the WISECOM system remains a promising option for further exploration and perhaps even implementation.  

In line with the live trial that was conducted in 2008, a pilot program could be established in Puerto Rico to test and refine the system for use in any subsequent emergencies that may arise. The pilot program could look into two issues that were seen by researchers in the 2008 live trial: a decrease in WiFi signal strength due to loss of line of sight with the WAT and the negative impact on signal strength due to signals reflecting off of urban elements such as buildings. [13] If the pilot program was, for example, conducted in the city of San Juan, which has a land area of 39.50 square miles [15], given that the WISECOM system is designed to provide coverage for an area up to 1 km within line of sight of the device [14] an ideal minimum of 33 WATs could be setup for testing. 

Based on descriptions of the equipment used in the 2008 live trial for the Inmarsat BGAN and DVB-RCS versions of the WAT [13][14], an estimated cost of $51,023.97 and $60,906.80 can calculated for the two versions of WAT respectively. Accounting for these costs, a pilot program involving both versions of WAT would thus have a minimum cost of $3,693,715.41 to construct the WATs. To proceed with testing, an experimental license would also need to be acquired from the FCC through its OET Experimental Licensing System. [16] The application fee for a Form 442, which would be the application used to apply for an experimental license lasting more than six months, is $70 as of 2018. [17] Accounting for this, the minimum cost, then, becomes $3,693,785.41.