Saturday, June 25, 2011

Looking closer at Japanese satellite networks during disaster response

Earlier this week, I wrote about a report issued by the Government of
Japan's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters (NERHQ). I mentioned that
it raised questions about the overall performance, reliability and
robustness of Japan's satellite networks including the "Local
Authorities Satellite Communications Network" or LASCOM.

Kazuto Suzuki, Professor of International Political Economy at Hokkaido
University Public Policy School, was kind enough to share some
information that he recently received from an executive at LASCOM which
is overseen by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and

The majority of LASCOM ground stations in the Tohoku area were OK, he
reports. Only 47 stations or 10 percent of the 473 ground stations in
Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki prefectures were out of service
immediately after the earthquake. LASCOM was used successfully to
transmit video and voice traffic from municipal governments in the
worst earthquake hit areas to prefectural governments.

One or two days after the earthquake, the number of inoperable stations
more than doubled to a total of 107 stations due to power outages. Many
stations that switched over to backup batteries found themselves out of
service in a day.

Given the scale of the earthquake damage, it appears that the LASCOM
network held up quite well. Many municipal governments lost their
ability to function because municipal offices and the attached
communications infrastructure were destroyed. Several key municipal
officers who were designated to be in charge in the case of a disaster
also sadly perished.

This loss of senior local incident managers was indeed tragic, but this
should not have impacted the day to day operation of emergency
communications including the satellite networking component. What about
the other personnel who should have been present in a support and / or
operational capacity? Did these network operators perish, too? Or did
far too few of these support personnel exist in the first place?

Thus, when this new LASCOM-related information is compared and
contrasted to the findings of the NERHQ report, new questions
arise. Besides the lack of adequate training which is a theme which one
encounters in every post-disaster analysis, the NERHQ report points to
major communications problems, and does not support a scenario where
only 10 percent of the affected sites were suddenly knocked out.

At the same time, as more light is shed on the response of certain
companies and government agencies, the role of NTT Docomo with its
Widestar and Widestar II services is getting very high marks, whereas
JAXA's reluctance or inability to quickly provide anything more than
very limited satellite communications to evacue via its satellite
assets has been called into question.

NTT Docomo which owns the N-Star satellites and provides satellite
phone and data services - fixed and mobile - throughout Japan deployed
a large number of ground receive units in the Tohoku area soon after
the earthquake hit. It achieved a goal of providing free phone service
to all evacuees in 150 evacuation camps and this proved to be a
significant contribution for relatives and friends of evacuees. In
fact, this was the only viable way for many people to confirm that
their friends and relatives were safe after the catastrophe. By the
way, the actual number of ground receive units deployed by NTT Docomo
may be even higher as this count surfaced soon after the evacuation was

On the other hand, JAXA's two powerful communications satellites, WINDS
and ETS-8, appeared to be marginal players at best during the
widespread recovery efforts. While JAXA officials may correctly assert
that JAXA focuses only on R&D and has never served as a disaster relief
agency, I have been told that JAXA often appeared too rigid and slow to
react. Rather than devoting considerable energy to solving the problem
of getting phone systems in place for so many people cut off from
friends and family members, JAXA focused on connecting just a handful
of local government offices, and unlike NTT Docomo did not generate a
timely, relevant and larger scale action plan.

In effect, JAXA dropped the ball here - remaining in the background -
at a time when a large number of flexible and rapidly installed
satellite-based solutions were urgently needed. This happened despite
the fact that when JAXA launched WINDS in 2008 with a price tag of
approximately $USD 500 million, much was said by JAXA about how WINDS
would demonstrate cutting edge disaster response techniques, among
other things. Perhaps it might be more prudent to say that an
opportunity for JAXA to conduct a convincing full-scale demonstration
of the prowess and potential impact of these two satellites in real
world emergencies was lost.  

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