Executive Interview with David Hartshorn, Secretary General, Global VSAT Forum
Currently, billions of individuals in every major world region— and billions of dollars worth of commerce—are supported by satellite-based broadcasting and telecommunications. VSAT, short for very small aperture terminal, are earthbound stations used in satellite communications of data, voice, and video signals, excluding broadcast television. The Global VSAT Forum (GVF), a non-profit, international association, was founded in 1998 to represent globally the interests of VSAT system and service providers, as well as end users, and to promote the technology and the services it supports. Headquartered in London, with a regional office in Washington, D.C. and global affiliates, the GVF is an independent, non-partisan organization with more than 200 members from every major region of the world. It has become the single voice of the global satellite communications industry.
David Hartshorn has been GVF’s Secretary General since its inception. He leads its efforts to facilitate the provision of satellite-based communications solutions throughout all nations of the world; works closely to support policymakers at the national, regional, and global levels as they formulate satellite regulatory frameworks; and is responsible for creating greater awareness of the commercial, economic, political, and technological advantages that satellite-based communications provide.
Apogeo Spatial’s contributing writer Matteo Luccio asked Hartshorn to explain his vision for a much tighter collaboration between the satellite communications and Earth observation (EO) communities to assist first responders in disasters.
APOGEO Apogeo Spatialís readers are familiar with how EO can provide information of relevance to first responders. How do EO and VSAT intersect with respect to disaster preparedness?
HARTSHORN Technology advances are underway both in the EO space and, in parallel, in the satellite communications space. These advances create a sense of moment that has not been there before and which calls upon both industry sectors to coordinate more closely than ever to leverage the synergies between these respective industries in facilitating more effective disaster response. One example is the current response in Nepal. Longer term, disaster preparedness strategies involve both industries, as well as the first responders themselves and other stakeholders in the disaster preparedness space.
APOGEO What got you involved with disaster preparedness?
HARTSHORN GVF is almost two decades old. When we had just launched the organization, we received an urgent phone call from the UN. This was around the time of the Sudan famine. They wondered whether we could facilitate their connection with satellite communication system and service providers who might be able to provide services and systems in support of the famine [relief effort]. Of course, we said, “Yes, what would you like?” and it was agreed that we would push an emergency notification button, reaching out to all of our members worldwide and putting them into direct contact with the UN, who would then engage them and see what, if anything, could be provided. That evolved into a formalized relationship over the years.
Fast forward to the Haiti earthquake, a few years ago… By that time, we had the formal arrangement in place, and we had expanded our collaboration to include NGOs, as well as national and state or provincial-level response agencies. We had pushed the emergency notification button many times and what we had begun to see and what really became underscored for everybody involved, during the Haiti earthquake, was a pattern of dysfunction between the communications industryónot just satellites, but the whole communications industryóand the first response community.
What happens traditionally is as follows: the first response agencies reach out to the communications industry, having implemented in advance an insufficient level of preparedness. They reach out in an emergency setting to the industry and ask for help. The industryóthose who are ableóresponds and, typically, because it is on such short notice, because there is a real disaster being attended to and lives are on the line, the industry provides free systems and services where possible. The justification for this engagement is, in varying degrees based on altruism, a sense of corporate social responsibility, and, for some, there is a hope that after the disaster, having stepped up to provide the support, there may be a more commercially sustainable level of engagement with that company, that donor.
APOGEO How did the Haiti earthquake change the relationship between the VSAT and disaster relief communities?
HARTSHORN Haiti was huge. It was a massive disaster and we pushed the button and, as usual, a number of our member companies from around the world stepped up and provided very substantial systems and services for support of the relief efforts. After the disaster, as usual, we went out to those members, as well as to the first-response community, and we asked, “How did it go? Did you learn any lessons?” We heard two stories, with the same conclusion. Our industry members said, “Well, we were proud to have been given the opportunity to support the relief effort, but it was hard, it was expensive, and if we were called again anytime soon, we are not sure that we could afford to do it.”
The first responders, around the same time, spoke with us and said, “Thank you for the donors, but when are we going to have real preparedness and sustainable engagement?” By this time, the Pakistan floods had begun to happen and the UN had gone out in the same way, with our assistance, to reach out for donors.
The final part of this pattern is donor fatigue. There was a faint shadow of industry support for Pakistan flood relief, because the floods happened right after Haiti. Because this level of engagement is not commercially sustainable and this is such a recognizable pattern that the term “donor fatigue” has been coined and is part of strategic operational plans for disaster preparedness and response.
So, we told our first-response partners: “We are frustrated, too. Our member companies cannot
provide unlimited assurances of ongoing support for disaster response. Let’s clear the deck here and start from scratch. What is your dream scenario for disaster response as it relates to communications?” They said: “Dream scenario? OK, one, we want pre-positioned people, in-country, all over the world, who are trained on deployment of communications and we can’t pay anything for that.” [I said,] “OK. What else?” They said, “Well, second, we want to know who the local communications service providers are in-country.”
APOGEO How do relief organizations relate to existing communications service providers in disaster areas?
HARTSHORN Typically, for example, when an organization like the UN comes into a disaster, they find that there is still a licensed communications service provider who has some level of capability that has survived the disaster. The international disaster-response organization, not knowing in advance who these companies are, comes right in on top of them and winds up, inadvertently, in effect in competition with that company, at a time when they can least afford that form of competition. It is also an opportunity cost, because they would like to use those services from the local provider and they would like not to bring in systems and services that are redundant, using, typically, aircraft capacity that could be put to better use for other things that are not available on the ground when they arrive.
APOGEO How is GVF able to assist?
HARTSHORN The GVF already runs a global certification program. We have more than 10,000 people enrolled who we train in how to deploy satellite communication systems. We maintain contact details for those personnel in a public database. We formalized with first-responders an arrangement where they can go out to these pre-trained personnel all over the world, wherever they may be, and enlist their services in support of deployments for disaster relief efforts.
Now, this is conducted on the basis of whatever terms are mutually agreeable between the installers and the first response entity. This becomes really important because those installers can be leveraged after the disaster, during the redevelopment phase of the effort, where longer-term commercial contracts may materialize. That phase, by the way, is usually when the funding support shows up. It is often not there before and during the disaster, it is often there afterward. So, it would create a bridge between those who are already there, as a pre-trained entity, so that they can help out during the disaster, maybe as a donor, maybe not, but certainly to be a prime candidate for longer-term contracts. So, we are addressing the financial sustainability.
Second, how can first response entities know who the local communications service providers are? These companies are typically the employers of those installers. So, by having that contact established before the disasters, and thatís now been done, first response agencies have access to locally licensed communications capabilities. That is useful during the disaster and here again, during the re-building phase when contracts show up and these types of companies locally may become beneficiaries and provide long-term support.
APOGEO Where does EO fit into all of this?
HARTSHORN Satellite communication is typically, at its most fundamental, a bent pipe through which information flows that would be useful in guiding and directing the efforts of the first responders on the ground during a disaster. EO obviously is a primary source of the type of data that can guide those first responders. Now, there are other sources, of course. Crowd mapping is a new source of data that has begun to flow through that satellite bent pipe to the first responders. However, EO information of every kind is great in providing higher levels of situational awareness, so that precious resources can be directed toward those areas most in need. Again, eliminating redundancy of effort is key here and Earth observation has a major role to play in that.
EO is already being used for emergency response but we want to see that data getting more deeply down range to those on the bleeding edge of the response effort. Another recent development that enables that to occur at a level that has not previously been possible is the implementation, right now, in every major region of the world, of high-throughput satellite (HTS) systems and services. To give an indication of what these are and what they represent and how they can become that conduit or bent pipe to move EO data further down range to the first responders, the first of the high throughput satellites were launched several years ago in the United States by a company called ViaSat. When the first ViaSat high-throughput satellite was launched, it had a throughput on one satellite equivalent to that of every other conventional satellite over North America combined. So, we are talking [about a] capability orders of magnitudes higher in moving data through to the recipient.
APOGEO How is the development of HTS changing the economics of satellite communications?
HARTSHORN Satellites are now a consumer play and the economies of scale enable much lower cost equipment with that much higher throughput capability. Today, several years on, there are more than one high throughput satellite providers in the United States and they have signed up close to two million paying consumer- and enterprise-class subscribers using that service. It is a mature service that has now proven itself. In the meantime, also, the same type of service has been rolled out in Africa, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Europe, South America, and elsewhere.
So, again, those economies of scale continue to mount. The GVF has begun to embed in disaster relief efforts our personnel and to work directly with the first responders to place these types of systems for support of on-the-ground operations. They love it! It works. It is much more cost-effective, it has high throughput, so we can move types of data that are very bandwidth-hungry, more deeply down range. This has all been happening in real time, with recent disaster relief efforts, and what we would now like to do is to engage with the EO community to explore and see how we can collaborate between our sectors to leverage these exciting new synergies.
APOGEO What are some of the obstacles to implementing your vision?
HARTSHORN here are many moving parts. Everything that I just said is a lot easier to say than it is to do.One of the big challenges that we have seen is simply getting doors opened that have been closed or further opened that are only cracked. That is between the centers, the stake- holders, variously, who have a role to play in disaster preparedness and response. For example, the military and humanitarian organizations are often among the first on the scene when a disaster occurs. However, traditionally, those two sectors haven’t talked to each other. That prevented coordination that would enable elimination or, at least, reduction of redundancies, and it would optimize the response effort.
That has begun to change. These humanitarian organizations have, at some significant level, begun to set aside their reservations and to provide higher levels of awareness of what their priorities are, their strategic plans, how they operate, so that that can more fully inform the way that the military entities are engaging in the response efforts. Local responders (fire, police) and national emergency response agencies have begun to engage more fully than ever before with external first response entities, in an international context.
Also bear in mind that the emergency management sector itself is, in the long term, relatively new. It didn’t even really exist as a discipline until a couple of decades ago. So, everybody is making this up as they go along and what’s exciting is that we are seeing closer coordination, globally, at the regional level, and nationally, where all stakeholders are being brought into the room, in varying degrees, to leverage, to coordinate, to optimize, to reduce redundancy, and so forth.
“What we would now like to do is to engage with the EO community to explore and see how we can collaborate between our sectors to leverage these exciting new synergies.”
APOGEO What are some upcoming opportunities to significantly increase the collaboration between the VSAT and EO communities for disaster preparedness and response?
HARTSHORN I’ve been in the satellite communications industry for more than 20 years and I will confess, fully, that over those 20 years I have thought of myself as a professional of the satellite communications industry. Full stop. I have seen the EO sector as being over a fence and this delineation becomes even more crystallized because you have industry associations that are focused on satcom and industry associations that are focused on EO. You have conferences focused on EO and conferences focused on satellite communications. [The difficulty of] getting dialog going and coordination across those fences has limited the types of discussions that occur in the disaster preparedness effort. We want to take those fences down and begin more full engagement and dialog. At GEOINT, the week of the 22nd of June in Washington, D.C., we are looking to have the first in a series of meetings to take that dialogue to the next level.