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.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Japanese satellites performed perfectly, but once the ground stopped shaking...

The Government of Japan's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters has
released its findings entitled, "Report of Japanese Government to the
IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety - The Accident at TEPCO's
Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations" dated June 2011

(See -

While the report is geared for a specific technical audience, it has
revealed that the Japanese government may have stumbled into a
satellite black hole. This admission that the Japanese government and
disaster response personnel in particular soon found themselves
overwhelmed and cut off - a situation that applied to upper level
incident managers in Tokyo as well as personnel in the field -
represents an important step as the Japanese government assesses the
strengths and weaknesses of its emergency communications grid.

The report states -

"Additionally, the NERHQs (Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters)
directly called those municipalities. However, since communication
services including telephone lines were heavily damaged by the
massive earthquake, not all the direct calls reached the affected
municipalities. Prior notification to local governments was not
satisfactorily delivered because some municipalities did not
receive evacuation instruction either directly or indirectly." (p.

And later in a chapter which focused on the lessons learned, the report
also states that -

"Effective training to respond to accident restoration at nuclear power
plants and adequately work and communicate with relevant organizations
in the wake of severe accidents was not sufficiently implemented up
to now. For example, it took time to establish communication
between the emergency office inside the power station, the Nuclear
Emergency Response Headquarters and the Local Headquarters and also to
build a collaborative structure with the Self Defense Forces, the
Police, Fire Authorities and other organizations which played important
roles in responding to the accident. Adequate training could have
prevented these problems." (pp. XII 7-8)

By pointing to a much larger communications gap then was previously
disclosed - due to an infrastructure meltdown layered on top of a
possible lack of interoperability - the report does not mask nor
sidestep the issue of the inability of Japanese officials to
communicate quickly and effectively. In doing so, it raises questions
about the overall performance, reliability and robustness of Japan's
"Local Authorities Satellite Communications Network" as well as the
dedicated satellite networks known as "J-ALERT" and "SafetyBird."
SafetyBird in particular includes a dedicated nuclear power plant early
warning component, for example.

Did the severity of the earthquake simply knock out satellite dishes in
multiple locations by shaking them and therefore terminating the
connection between ground equipment and their respective satellites? Or
did power supply disruptions knock out satellite transmit and receive

No explicit language in the report points a finger at the satellite
ground segment, but the suggestion is too strong to ignore, and the
results are too obvious to overlook.

This report to the IAEA leaves many unanswered questions about the
status of satellite communications in this instance. By the way, this
writer examined this topic several weeks ago in a post which appeared
on "Japan Security Watch" which was entitled, "Japan's Earthquake
Revealed Key Satellite Gaps"


A more objective and more detailed analysis of what went wrong and why
so many key personnel were affected in the process needs to emerge.

In many respects, the lessons learned by Japanese disaster response
planners parallel those that the U.S. learned in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

The bottom line is that satellite phones and fixed, two-way satellite dishes
, along with the right number of trained and qualified personnel on scene - whether at a facility or a population center - need to be in place and ready to respond.
Operating both the satellite phones in question, and taking charge of
larger satellite uplinks to support phone banks as well as multiple
video feeds etc requires skill and plenty of practice. Absent these key
ingredients, the result can be an unpleasant, unwanted and prolonged

Monday, June 20, 2011

Launch date

In 2008, Mr. Doi, a Japanese astronaut aboard the International Space Station, took out a paper boomerang and threw it only to have it return to him. Many doubted that boomerangs would perform in this fashion in outer space. A Japanese astronaut proved them wrong.

So begins this blog. This will be an attempt to better explain what the Japanese are doing in space and why. The author does not speak Japanese, so only information in English will appear here.

There is a lot happening in Japan in terms of space-related activity in general. Japan needs help in getting the word out. Over the coming weeks, my plan is to shed more light on the Japanese space sector, and to reach out to younger researchers as well in order to demonstrate the full range and scope of what is underway.

Everything has to begin somewhere.