The Satellite Connection

Wireless technology protects San Franciscos telephone and Internet services in an emergency.

by / September 4, 2001
When a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook Seattle in February, telecommunications specialists learned an important lesson: The biggest problem was not the loss of infrastructure, but rather jammed communication lines.

As soon as tremors were felt in Seattle, people all over the globe had that information thanks to Internet-based news services. Concerned friends and family sent e-mails to their entire distribution lists informing them of the news. Phone lines into the area quickly became choked with callers and Web sites were flooded with traffic. So, although the communication infrastructure survived the earthquake, emergency-planning groups werent guaranteed access to it.

"Anecdotally, the information that came from the Seattle earthquake is one of the things that you would expect. The problem was that people overloaded a lot of the sites," said Lou Canton, director of the San Francisco Mayors Office of Emergency Services. "We had a great deal of difficulty phoning our counterparts in the Seattle area. For example, we were trying to get into the [Seattle] OES to check on the earthquake, but we couldnt get through."

Being quite familiar with the threat of earthquakes, Cantons office had implemented a new satellite backup-Internet system late last year to safeguard San Francisco in the event of a similar emergency. The aftermath of the Seattle quake reassured Canton that San Francisco had done the right thing by deploying the backup system.

Knowing the Threat
"One of the things that is happening in emergency management over the last few years has been an increasing reliance on the Internet," Canton said. "When we started out, we did things manually. We can certainly do that; its always our fall back. What weve found is that the Internet is fairly robust; its basically a way to get a lot of information to a lot of people fairly quickly."

San Francisco uses the Internet to provide public information through Californias emergency digital information system. It also uses the Web to connect to the California Governors Office of Emergency Services with requests for assistance. Even minor tasks, such as checking weather or researching earthquake data, rely on having the Internet up and running.

"Were always a little concerned about over-relying on technology," Canton said. "[But] we decided that the reliance on technology wasnt as bad as people think. We can always do things the old-fashioned way if we had to."

The city was determined to keep the Internet alive after a major catastrophe, which in San Francisco means Web access must survive a serious temblor. "Everything we do in terms of planning, we have to plan to that level of difficulty," Canton said. "We figure if we can handle that, we can pretty much handle everything else."

In choosing a satellite-based Internet backup system, the city made some basic assumptions about what happens during and after earthquakes. One was that the standard telephone system would be marginally functional at best, as frantic callers overload the system. Officials also assumed that cellular phone systems would be swamped with people trying to use them as an alternative to land lines.

A Proactive Approach
"In a very proactive way, the mayors office identified that there were technology options available to them that would mitigate the risk of being isolated. And that technology was satellite technology," said Rick Bolin, wireless national practice leader of Ciber Inc., the IT-solutions provider that worked with San Francisco to implement the system.

San Franciscos primary concern was maintaining contact with the state of Californias emergency-management system, Canton said. "That allows anyone to get into it to share information with the rest of us, request resources [and] give us updates. Having connectivity to those things was critical to us."

The satellite system was designed to support San Franciscos three most crucial applications during an emergency - the citys online emergency-management tool, Web access and e-mail. The solution automatically rolls those applications from the land-based system to the satellite-based system in the event of an emergency, ensuring those tools are available to end-users without any recognizable disruption.

The system reroutes information from the terrestrial network to routers linked to the satellite network. "Rather than sending the bits and bytes out to a telco for distribution, they send those bits and bytes to the roof for distribution," Bolin said. "And that link ties them back to a data center in Sacramento that allows them to continue their communication."

When the project began, the states Office of Emergency Services provided the city with satellite phones, which offered a limited amount of data. But it was an old system that was never intended to replace anything the city currently had.

"We looked at some portable systems and we actually purchased a portable system in the process, but theyre pretty much one computer to one phone line," Canton said. "We really needed something that would serve the entire command center here when we were all operating at the same time in different ways. We finally decided what we needed was a satellite uplink from here that could handle a fairly large amount of users at the same time."

Another challenge Canton consistently faces is purchasing expensive equipment that is rarely used, but must still be maintained because the equipment must perform perfectly in an emergency. However, he said the new satellite system was relatively inexpensive.

There were two things the city considered before purchasing the system: ease of use and Internet connectivity. The new system had to be Internet-based so the only thing users need is the URL and the password. This simplicity cuts the time spent training employees to use the system. "You can take somebody whos walking in here in the middle of a crisis, give them about five minutes of quick instructions and theyd be able to function," Canton said. "We tested it. Its been very well accepted by our emergency services here in the city."

San Francisco routinely experiences minor emergencies, but so far nothing has triggered a switch to the satellite network. "Thankfully there has not been a need to use it in the event of an emergency. But in live tests the system has worked flawlessly," Bolin said.

With most government buildings in California built to withstand earthquakes, it is likely that San Franciscos roof-mounted satellite dish would survive intact. In the event of a damaged disk, a technician would have to physically set up and redirect a new disk, but Bolin says the technology is fairly simple and this isnt a major concern.

Degrees of Separation
"Seattle really proved to us that every city needs to think about its telecommunications infrastructure and whether or not it can support that bombardment of e-mail and telephone calls just to make sure that Uncle Tim or Aunt Sallys OK," Bolin said.

"That was a minor earthquake [in Seattle]," Canton said. "So it pointed out that were on the right track here. We fully expect communications to be affected and that you really need to have some alternatives in place."
Gwen Cruz Editorial Assistant