By James Cemmell
Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines are struck by around 20 cyclones every year and are at constant risk of devastating damage from earthquakes and tsunamis.
Although the Philippines has very good early warning systems and a robust disaster preparedness system in place, the infrastructure and resource allocation to respond to disasters is poor, so the human and economic cost remains high.
This problem is escalated because of the growing population and the increasing hazards associated with climate change. Disaster rescue and relief efforts are often hampered because terrestrial networks are knocked out or simply do not cover affected areas.
While this can be classified as a case of digital divide due to the absence of the Internet, it is much more than that. This is a special case of the digital divide where basic needs such as safety is compromised from the lack of digital access.
A key lesson from Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 ? which killed 6,300 people in the Philippines, affected 1.5 million more, and caused $2 billion worth of damage ? was the ineffective deployment of crisis communications.
Government first responders were only able to glean information on the extent of the devastation from TV reports 24 hours after the storm hits because broadcasters were equipped with satellite terminals.
If broadcasters could easily report on the devastation outside the area of terrestrial networks, can satellite technologies be used by the government to better coordinate rescue efforts during a natural disaster and bridge the digital divide? The answer is yes.
Through the Philippines IPP (International Partnership Program) project, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) is working with mobile satellite communications provider Inmarsat to bridge the digital divide and improve disaster response through a high-speed satellite connectivity.
Pre-positioning of the satellite kit in five regions especially vulnerable to natural hazards, and training of DSWD Rapid Emergency Response Teams (RETT) T?l?coms Sans Fronti?res, means critical data can be sent direct from a disaster site to coordinate a detailed government response within 24 hours.
This project specifically uses Inmarsat?s Global Xpress (GX) satellite service, highly portable mobile BGAN broadband terminals, and rugged IsatPhone 2 satellite phones.
In the first year of the project, which was launched in March 2017, RETT was deployed to deal with four humanitarian crises, including a mass population displacement caused by an insurgency and two tropical storms. By far the greatest test of the satellite communications solution, however, was the eruption of Mount Mayon in Bicol in January 2018.
Over several weeks of violent activity, an estimated 80,000 people living in the vicinity of the volcano were moved to 97 evacuation centers. The DSWD incident command post, set up in a nearby hospital, was entirely powered by Inmarsat?s Global Xpress satellite network.
Thirty users from various government agencies coordinating the evacuation were able to use the reliable, high-capacity connection for chat functions, VoIP, file transmission (for reports, images, etc), internet access and video conferencing.
DSWD teams routinely visited offline evacuation centers with the mobile BGAN terminals so camp managers could stay in touch with the command post and request supplies. In each of these emergency deployments, the fast transmission of information and improved situational awareness made the delivery of aid quicker and more efficient.
As the three-year project progresses, any future events, as well as regional and national emergency preparedness training exercises, will further serve to demonstrate to the Philippine government the effectiveness of mobile satellite communications in reducing the impact of natural disasters.
Pre-deployment of satellite equipment in hazardous areas and training for first responders can easily be scaled up across the region and to other disaster-prone countries.
While it can be hard to predict when a natural disaster will strike, using satellite communications to reduce the impact translates to many more lives being saved.
The author is the vice president for government engagement at Inmarsat