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Chilean Army Shares Satellite Technology to Ensure Continuous Communication During National Emergencies

Chilean Army Shares Satellite Technology to Ensure Continuous Communication During National Emergencies

By Dialogo
January 25, 2016

The Chilean Ministry of Internal Affairs and Public Security’s National Emergency Office (ONEMI, for its Spanish acronym) now has an Army satellite platform to ensure constant communication between zones affected by natural disasters and the government’s humanitarian aid agencies. The Communications Satellite Backup System will bolster ONEMI’s communications services, ensuring operational continuity among its headquarters in the nation's capital of Santiago and 15 regional offices nationwide during natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

ONEMI is the Chilean government agency responsible for coordinating the National Civil Protection System, which plans, organizes, and executes official responses to catastrophes, whether natural or human-made.

“We will have constant communication with the places under a state of emergency,” National Defense Minister José Antonio Gómez said during the official opening ceremony for the backup system on November 9th at the Army Telecommunications Command in Santiago.

ONEMI’s conventional communications network uses fiber optics, which in the event of an emergency is liable to fail or suffer diminished connection capacity, limiting sufficient management of aid to the affected area and population. With the backup satellite system, ONEMI's communications network can continue to operate securely and reliably, since the new system does not require infrastructure on land that is susceptible to damage.

“We place our full communications capacity at the disposal of our fellow citizens who have been affected by natural disasters,” said Colonel Gonzalo Cañas Bennett, Chief of Communications at the Army Telecommunications Command.

Critical backup system

The February 27, 2010 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Chile's central and south coasts revealed the vulnerability and deficiencies of the country's nationwide support management system. The disaster killed 521 people, damaged 370,000 homes, and caused between $4 billion and $7 billion in damages.

“In an emergency, it is critical to have as much communications capacity as possible,” Col. Cañas said. “This experience was a turning point that led civilian and Military institutions to think up new ways to deal with future disasters.”

To address the issue, Military officials developed a backup system for ONEMI’s communication services that could be used as an alternative to the main system in the event of a failure. The Army – through the Telecommunications Command – was the only institution with satellite capabilities already set up, making it feasible to turn the project into reality.

In 2014, ONEMI signed a cooperation agreement with the Army before working together to implement the system in early 2015. They jointly leased satellite capacity, installed antennae at ONEMI's regional offices and at the headquarters office, trained the personnel from both institutions responsible for operating the new system, and conducted a series of tests.

After 240 days of work, on November 9th, the Army, through the “Baquedano” Ground Maneuver Units Telecommunications System, began to operate and monitor the new constant communications system 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Once the action protocol was signed, the two institutions established the methods of operation, each party’s responsibilities, and assigned a range of frequencies.

Communications ensured

The satellite network ensures continuity of operations for the voice and data systems between ONEMI's headquarters and regional offices, which includes voice traffic (VoIP telephones), video (video conferencing), and data (Internet). The system's operations are automated, meaning that if it detects ONEMI’s primary communications network has been affected by some service outage, it migrates all data to the satellite network and continues transmitting normally.

The system experienced a baptism by fire during the September 16th earthquake in the city of Coquimbo in the country’s Region IV that left 13 dead and 9,000 victims, according to ONEMI. “Because of the earthquake, commercial communications were unavailable for a couple of hours, so ONEMI's equipment automatically transferred communications to the satellite system," recalled Major Iván Pérez, Army Telecommunications Command Project Chief. "It was imperceptible to users."

Army support

The Army leases satellite segments offered on civilian or Military bands for its communication satellite infrastructure. The Army Telecommunications Command manages satellite stations that allow ground forces to communicate nationwide.

“The Army’s cooperation and its existing capabilities facilitate the backup system’s work,” explained Maj. Pérez. “Otherwise, carrying this effort out through private channels would have required an enormous dedication of financial resources and we could not have had full-time operations like we can do now.”

“Enabling two government agencies to join forces and develop their capabilities for the betterment of the country, as they do in dealing with the various emergencies we experience is an important milestone,” ONEMI Director Ricardo Toro added.