Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Satellite Technology for Emergency Communications

When disaster strikes, key communications infrastructure can be destroyed or overloaded--the telephone system, cellular communications, even 2-way radio that relies on the power grid. Some plan on "bugging out" to locations that are beyond the reach of communications infrastructure even at the best of times. Can satellite communication technology be relied upon to fill this gap?


In radio communications, radio waves carry communications from radio to radio. Many of us who prepare for disaster are frustrated, however, by the constraints of radio communications. Hand-held transceivers in particular are limited in range to just a few miles; in order to significantly extend communications range, one needs some combination of higher power (meaning you can't rely on that little battery inside your hand-held transceiver) or better antenna (meaning you can't rely on that little antenna attached to your hand-held transceiver). While one can communicate for longer distances with low power, typically this requires wavelengths that call for antennas that just aren't practical to use while one is on foot. And even if one does take the time to stop and string up a low-bandwidth antenna, the range depends on bouncing the signal off layers in the atmosphere, meaning one may be able to talk to someone in another country, but not to someone just 100 miles away.

In satellite communications, satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) can handle communication transmissions directly to hand-held devices on earth. History has shown us that when disasters destroy or overwhelm land-based communications infrastructure such as phone lines and cell towers, satellite communication can remain as a viable option. So satellite communications are a proven solution.

There are several satellite form factors of interest to one preparing for disaster: satellite phones, personal trackers, and Internet hotspots. Satellite phones are much like mobile phones, and indeed there are multi-band phones out there that allow one to make calls or send text messages over one's choice of mobile and satellite networks. A key advantage of a sat phone is the ability to make a call from remote parts of the world where no cellular coverage is available. There are a number of satellite communications systems out there, notably Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar. Before signing up for a service plan, check a provider's coverage area and reputation and make sure you're satisfied.

A key difference between mobile phones and sat phones is that sat phones basically require one to be outside with a clear line-of-sight to the satellites to function. Mountains, tall buildings, and trees can all get in the way. This factor alone is probably not a deal-killer, however. So why aren't more preppers championing sat phones?

One factor is cost. Sat phones and other communications devices typically cost hundreds of dollars and that price can approach $2,000. Now that many people are used to paying hundreds of dollars for a smart phone, however, a $260 tracker or a $450 sat phone may seem a reasonable investment. On top of the initial cost of the communications device, however, one must pay for satellite communications service, as part of a post-paid plan, complete with rollover minutes, or using pre-paid phone cards. Plans are available that cost less than a dollar a minute. Again, as we accustom ourselves to spending hundreds of dollars a year on mobile phone plans, a $150/year plan doesn't seem excessively steep. But that $150 a year barely gets one 10 minutes a month. Sat phones are typically able to connect with a land line or mobile phone--but at a higher rate. Calls to sat phones on rival networks also cost extra, so try to get your whole calling group on the same network. Pre-paid cards require an activated sat phone, which means an emergency pre-paid sat phone must be continually fed a diet of pre-paid cards to keep the minutes from expiring and to prevent the phone from being deactivated.

The real issue for people preparing for widespread disaster scenarios is the extent to which satellite communications depend on land-based infrastructure after all. Some satellite networks actually use ground stations for call switching, though in the Iridium network much of the switching is done up in orbit at the satellites themselves. Normal activities such as activating sat phones, changing plans, paying bills, etc. require land-based infrastructure to complete. This means that to be relied upon at all in case of emergency, one must have the satellite communication devices active and costing money before the emergency, and to the extent the emergency impacts the land-based infrastructure, the emergency must be done by the time one needs to take action to keep one's device active.

Personal trackers focus on being able to communicate one's location to emergency responders. These devices, popular with outdoors adventure enthusiasts, primarily communicate with GPS satellites to fix one's location, and with communication satellites to transmit that data to emergency responders. In recent years, limited 2-way text communications have been added to these devices. A good example of this sort of device is the DeLorme inReach; unlike some trackers, the inReach allows for one to communicate directly to others with inReach devices, and not just via the Internet or mobile phone. As with sat phones, however, trackers require normal land-based conditions (with telephones, stores, the Internet, or the like) to set up. To keep an inReach active starts at nearly $145 a year (at the 10 text messages included per month rate; normally one would bump up the service when planning to do some outdoor activities) and can run as high as $960 a year. With prices like that, unless one really wants the GPS data (which many preppers would actually prefer to avoid) one is tempted to pay a bit more up front for a normal sat phone and enjoy voice and e-mail capabilities.

Satellite Internet hotspots create a wireless local area network, permitting devices such as computers and smart phones to communicate by satellite with the Internet. One could make a Skype call over such a hotspot, for example, or transmit documents or photographs. Once again, stiff service plan fees apply.

Assuming the costs of satellite communication are not prohibitive for you and you have a way to keep your satellite devices' batteries charged, satellite communications might be something to consider for the sorts of disasters that hit somewhere on earth all the time: storms, floods, localized earthquakes, etc. But satellites are just as susceptible to such dangers as electromagnetic pulses, civil disorder, or government control as most other communications technologies.

With all the vulnerabilities that remain with satellite communications on top of its setup and maintenance costs--land-based activation, billing and payment, and even switching, plus vulnerable to EMP, corporate, and government interference, I consider amateur radio to remain the best option for emergency communications. I'm willing to trade the preparation and knowledge required to have reliable emergency communications for the convenience and costs of satellite communications. Amateur radio equipment is affordable, operation is virtually free, and though solutions to individual communications problems may require planning ahead, the solutions are there.

Related articles:
Two-Way Radio Communications
Seven Advantages of Amateur Radio
Communicaton: Plan On It

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2 comments:

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