Satellite urgently needed
Perhaps the most baffling manmade tragedy in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” last Nov. 8 was the untidy government response that helped disjoint rescue and relief work in the battered provinces of the Visayas.
One of the key causes of this episode was the complete failure of communications. The most powerful typhoon on record to have made landfall quickly eliminated the ground-based infrastructure that makes cellular, data and landline communications possible.
It also put to naught the government’s prudent efforts to stem losses by prompt evacuations and the prepositioning of supplies and first responders.
The loss of fixed terrestrial links left satellite communications as the only remaining mode of postdisaster telecommunications. Yet, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council admitted before the Senate that it didn’t have a single satellite phone during and immediately after Yolanda.
The question remains: Why?
Only a deeper investigation will reveal the hidden reasons for this flaw in disaster planning. But what is the disaster-prone Philippines to do in the meantime? Will it again prepare to reap another whirlwind sown by seeds of ignorance and inaction? Or will it finally open its eyes to the dire need for a communications system that is immune to destruction by any typhoon however strong?
Only a Filipino domestic satellite system will ensure that life-saving telecommunications are operational from the get-go. And the linchpin of this system is an orbiting communications satellite dedicated to meeting the Philippines’ unique needs in disaster preparedness, postdisaster response, national security, distance education, the Internet and business.
The Philippines does not have a single communications satellite in orbit today. The need for this platform has long been felt but never acted upon. And now, a killer typhoon has made us pay dearly for our inaction.
“Yolanda is a very obvious wake-up call for the Philippines to have its own domestic satellite system,” said H.B. Yalung, the man responsible for establishing the first true broadband satellite service in the Philippines and owner of TNR Telecoms.
“A satellite is a cell site in the sky and is the only viable and reliable communications solution in a disaster the magnitude of Yolanda,” he said.
According to Yalung, only a satellite system is immune from all types of geo-originated disasters and calamities. And only a satellite system can provide instant service coverage to every square meter of the country on land or at sea.
The vital importance of satellite communications immediately after Yolanda was driven home by the government’s request to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Telecommunication Union to deploy more satphones to the Visayas. Both UN agencies obliged.
On the other hand, the absence of reliable communications forced the government to resort to using military couriers traveling on foot or by motorcycle to obtain and return with vital information.
“This was the first time that the initial request from a national government after a disaster to the humanitarian community was for telecommunications aid,” said Steve Birnbaum, the chair of Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Response Programs of the Global VSAT Forum, the unified voice of the global satellite communications industry.
“This strongly demonstrates the increasingly critical role played by access to information and communications technology by the affected population and official responders,” he said.
Birnbaum believes a Philippine satellite can play a significant role in preparedness and in response and recovery in large-scale natural disasters.
He said that as the scale of the impact of Yolanda became apparent, the world’s satellite operators rushed to offer bandwidth to support the humanitarian response effort in the Philippines. “In this case, the challenge was not the lack of bandwidth but the lack of readily available VSAT antennas for use by responding humanitarian organizations,” he said.
A VSAT (very small aperture terminal) is a two-way satellite ground station that transmits data, voice and video signals.
Birnbaum said the government can help by collecting information about available VSAT terminals that could be shared with foreign humanitarian response organizations, along with key contacts within the domestic commercial communications industry.
Over the past two years, the Inquirer has published two of our reports making the case for the Philippines operating its own dedicated communications satellite. We mentioned disaster preparedness and response as key advantages springing from a domestic satellite.
The first report urged the government to take the lead in this massive effort. The second asked the private sector to lead in this effort if the government could not, or would not.
We said a private Filipino consortium may partner with foreign business firms to buy a small satellite instead of building its own satellite to cut costs.
Garrie Pimentel, managing director of Asia Broadcast Satellite Ltd. for Southeast Asia, suggested a “condo arrangement” where ownership of a satellite is shared by foreign operators. This is because the cost of owning and operating a satellite is quite high and the process of obtaining an orbital slot (a parking space for a satellite) is tedious.
Tom van der Heyden, a satellite expert who works in the Philippines, said the country needs to be properly educated to properly appreciate what a satellite can do. He noted that its satellite requirement “has always been urgent.” The Philippines, however, needs to have people in the highest positions who understand what can be done with a satellite.
“Buying a truck will not help if you have no experience driving a truck. The country needs to build up capabilities, and then a satellite, so that the satellite is not just a drain on the economy but can serve the people and business,” Heyden said.
He emphasized that the Philippines also needs a satellite for maritime security and to protect its waters and borders.
In this vein, Pimentel said the Philippine military should have quick-deploy VSAT systems and a hub with the necessary IP backhaul connectivity. “It is pathetic that today, the VSAT network of the [military] is actually on a Chinese satellite!”
The Philippines has orbited only two satellites: the derelict Agila-1 and Agila-2, which is now operated by Asia Broadcast Satellite, and serves Africa.
“Forewarned is forearmed” is a lesson we should have learned long ago from the unending procession of natural disasters that pummel us without fail every year. We must immediately heed this lesson. Nature is not merciful, and never will be.
We need a Philippine satellite now to save Filipino lives in the future.
Art Villasanta and Peter Galace have been writing about satellites and the space industry for well over a decade. They also coauthored an extensive research and market study about the Philippine ICT industry.
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