Alternate Communications During Times of Disaster
By Dr. Jim Kennedy, NCE, MRP, MBCI, CBRM
We have witnessed over the last three to five years many disasters both in the United States and abroad. Based on what we are hearing from NOAA and the National Weather Service the US is likely to see the same number, if not more, tropical storms this year. Storms like those of the size and ferocity of the type that were so devastating to the southern portion of the US in 2005. So, tropical storms in the US , earthquakes in South America and Asia or volcanoes anywhere else on the globe, we, humanity, face another year of potential emergencies that will need to be responded to.
One thing that all of these natural disasters have in common, besides the tremendous loss of life and disruption to everyday lives of the populous, is that they are immediately followed by an almost total loss of the ability to communicate with the outside world. Power is lost, telephone services are discontinued, and cell phone service is either non-existent or is so congested that it takes hours to get a call through.
So, every year, companies and emergency planners face the problem of providing continued communication before, during, and after a disaster strikes their areas. This year, more than any other time, in the southern part of America small, medium and large company business continuity planners are looking for alternatives to standard communications so that they can keep their business and critical operations running in the aftermath of a devastating event.
I thought that I would present some alternatives for the spectrum of business types so that those business continuity planners would have choices to make informed decisions about backup communications from.
Before we discuss back-up communications solutions let’s first discuss the failure mechanisms for the communications used during normal times.
Most companies continue to rely upon the standard telephone system for their communications needs. In order to provide this service the telecommunications carrier, regardless of where you are located in the world, relies upon either copper wire or fiber optic cables from its central offices to its customers' premises. This ‘last mile’ can either be above ground, which is in the majority of cases, or underground. We have all seen those graphic pictures of poles and trees uprooted and thrown to the ground after a hurricane or tornado have devastated an area. When this happens that last mile of connectivity between the business and its telephone provider, Internet provider, or application service provider are abruptly disconnected and utility power is lost. Underground cables are not entirely safe from disruption of service either. Many times due to flooding and/or power loss these underground services are disrupted as well. In the case of cell phone providers the cell towers receive your cell phone’s call they then route it to a local central office. These towers or the equipment inside of them can also be damaged or destroyed as well as the last mile circuits which connect those cell towers to the local telephone network. So cell phone service is as tenuous as the regular telephone service when a disaster strikes. I should also mention that the southeast US is not the only area where loss of communications services takes place and hurricanes and tornadoes are not the only natural disasters that disrupt communications and power. In the northeast US over the last several years ice storms and blizzards have also taken their toll on communications and power utilities, for example.
Usually following an event like a tornado, hurricane, blizzard or the like, the communications and power service providers work very hard to restore service, however, in most cases we are talking several days if not a week for the restoration of power and phone service. This restoration time varies depending on the size and intensity of the disaster. If it is localized, as it could be for a tornado, then service could be restored more quickly.
These copper and fiber optic cables also interconnect the local telephone company’s central offices to other central offices in the region and to long distance providers, cell phone carriers, Internet and data communications service providers anywhere in the world. These inter-exchange or ‘long haul’ circuits provide the ability of interconnectivity and communication to beyond the local area. So if your business communicates between offices in Baton Rouge LA and St. Louis MO there are probably several service providers and miles of cables involved in carrying the information from one point to the other. These cables travel above and underground and suffer the same fate as the local last mile circuits do. However, because of the number of calls, subscribers and the importance of these circuits, the carriers or the businesses that use them generally employed circuit ‘diversity’. What this means is that there are multiple paths for the voice or data to travel. If one path fails there is another which can be used to take the call to its intended destination. This works well for such things as car vs. pole accidents, isolated incidents like localized fires and floods, but with mass devastation like we experienced with Hurricane Katrina or the tornadoes in the midwest US, even the diverse routes are consumed in the overall damage toll.
Power is another failure mode. The central offices and cell phone sites have their own power sources in the form of batteries and emergency generators. If the event is limited to a few hours or a few days they will be fully operational. However, it was found that in the case of the hurricanes and earthquakes of the last few years power has been interrupted for several days even up to several weeks and the power plants, central offices, or cell towers in the areas of devastation were inaccessible for most of that time. This meant that the fuel trucks needed to refuel the generators were unable to get to their destinations and subsequently the central offices and cell sites went off-line.
So now that we understand that the power and communications utilities have pl anne d for adverse events, but the intensity and massive area of devastation often make these plans fail. It is left to the individual business owner or operator to determine the criticality of their services and to properly plan for potential communication and power failures that might impact them.
In the next part of this article, I will endeavor to present the alternatives that exist in case you experience a disastrous event with a communication failure.
Before I discuss the alternatives I feel that it is important to note that power is a main component of any recovery or mitigation strategy. That is, without power to run these technologies they will not operate. So, it is important to have reliable and sustainable power for the duration of the resumption and/or recovery effort. If you cannot verify that this is the case then alternate site recovery is the only viable alternative.
One such alternative to commercial communication systems is infrared. This alternative is used if a company needs to interconnect two buildings together. Infrared provides an optical data, voice and video transmission system. Like fiber optic cable, infrared communications systems use laser light to transmit a digital signal between two transceivers. However, unlike fiber, the laser light is transmitted through the air. In order for the digital signal to be transmitted and received, there must be clear line of site between each unit. In other words, there should be no obstructions such as trees or buildings between the transceiver units. So, if your wireline or wireless communications fails you can still provide communications between two points. The only drawback is the distance and the line-of-sight requirements.
This solution provides low-cost, high-speed wireless connectivity for a variety of last-mile applications. It provides narrowband voice and broadband data connectivity and the various products provide scalable, wireless alternatives to leased lines. These infrared systems operate at data rates of 1 Megabit to Multi Gigabit speeds and they are deployable in one day, without requiring right-of-way or government permits for installation. They can provide an alternative communication link in hours instead of weeks or months. This is probably not an option for a small business, but for a medium or large business owner the cost is affordable. Cost can range from $10K to $25K per installation capable of distances of up to 1000 meters.
Another alternative to commercial communication systems is microwave (wireless). This alternative is used if a company needs to interconnect two buildings together that are spaced farther apart than the conventional infrared can operate (i.e., in excess of 1000m). Microwave also provides a data, voice and video transmission system. Unlike infrared communications systems, which use laser light to transmit a digital signal between two transceivers, microwave uses ultra-high frequency radio frequency (wireless) transmission. In order for the digital signal to be transmitted and received, there again must be clear line of site between each unit. However, the distance that this alternative can span is up to 60 miles as long as no obstructions such as trees or buildings are located between the two locations. If wireline or wireless communications fails communications between two points can still take place. There are several drawbacks to this solution:
The cost of a microwave system can be between $50K and $100K with installation and license preparation charges to be in the area of another $15K. It still provides a viable alternative for medium and large businesses.
Small businesses also have an alternative of smaller wireless systems which utilize non-licensed frequencies and which can be installed by an IT person in the business operation. Cost is about $1000 to $2000, but I must warn you that this is not as reliable a solution as the microwave wireless option and reliable speeds may be slower.
So far I have provided solutions that have been better suited for the medium and large business operations. Satellite provides alternatives for small, medium and large enterprises and there are various speed and pricing options, which make it a very attractive alternative or mitigation strategy.
There are several types of satellite alternatives. If a company is only interested in providing a short term telephone back-up alternative then satellite phone service like INMARSAT, at&t, Iridium, Satcom, Skytel, Worldcell, or Globalstar to name only a few offer basic voice, fax and basic v and e-mail services. They offer mobile phone services and are not usually capable of providing sustained data communication or Internet types of services. However, this communications strategy is good for keeping your senior executives and critical operations personnel in contact during disasters. You can rent phones for about $40/week and then pay about $1.00/minute for basic service or you can buy the phones for $700 to $2000 each and negotiate rates in the area of $0.85/minute. So as you can see this is not an inexpensive option, but usable depending on the need for communications.
VSAT is an acronym for Very Small Aperture Terminal, an earthbound station used in satellite communications of data, voice and video signals. A VSAT consists of two parts, a transceiver that is placed outdoors in direct line of sight to the satellite and a device that is placed indoors to interface the transceiver with the end user's communications device, such as a PC. It is very much like a satellite TV setup. VSAT service can be placed into two categories: those that provide basic Internet access services and those that are enterprise grade. For the small and medium sized business the Internet access type service is often what is selected. Such offerings as: DirectWay, WildBlue, and Connexstar all offer low cost, small business types of back up solutions which use equipment much like the in-home satellite television services. The data rates are in the area of 200 kbps uplink and 1.5 Mbps downlink which is very much like residential DSL service. The cost is about $300 for the equipment and around $100 or less each month. This would provide a small business the ability to utilize VoIP, VPN and connect to the Internet. For medium and large size businesses there are more sophisticated satellite services. They require satellite antennas, which are 3 to 5 meters in diameter and much more sophisticated and expensive equipment. Installation of these more sophisticated satellite services can cost in the range of $100K to $250K with monthly operational service charges from $1000 to $5000/month. They provide quality of service and committed information rates as part of the service. They can provide for up to 150 toll-quality phone lines, broadband Internet, and high speed data communications and also provide secure communication (encrypted) is required. Satellite services can also be rented as part of a contract or call up service. But, rental services are on a first-come-first served basis. As we witnessed during the tropical storms of last year these portable rental satellite service providers were inundated with requests and try as they would there were only so many units to go around. Those who did not plan or contract ahead were left without service.
I hope that I have given business continuity planners some food for thought in developing alternative communication mitigation strategies. Each strategy has its benefits and drawbacks. You need to look at each potential possibility and determine what is right for you. If you are overwhelmed there are many consulting organizations and even your own telecommunications services provider who can help you to identify and select the best options. However, you need to get started today for the next hurricane, tornado, flood, of catastrophe season in your geographic region. It will be too late to plan after an event occurs.
Dr. Jim Kennedy is the Business Continuity Services Practice Lead and a Consulting Member of Technical Staff for Lucent Technologies. Dr. Kennedy has over 25 years experience in the business continuity and disaster recovery fields and holds numerous Master level certifications in network engineering, information security and business continuity.
He has developed more than 30 recovery plans, planned or participated in more than 100 business continuity and disaster recovery tests, helped to coordinate three actual recovery operations, authored many technical articles on business continuity and disaster recovery and is a contributing author for two books, the "Blackbook of Corporate Security" and "Disaster Recovery Planning: An Introduction."