Satellite Industry Response to COVID-19

As an integral part of the world’s critical infrastructure, the communications satellite industry has responded to the stresses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic by protecting its employees, assisting customers and suppliers, and helping medical personnel and other essential personnel directly impacted by COVID-19. This article highlights a sampling of the ways the communications satellite industry is responding to the pandemic.

Protecting Employees

The ability of any industry to provide goods or services begins and ends with its employees. If they are not able to work in a safe environment, then their productivity is diminished, and all suffer as a result. Given the 24×7 requirements of 99.999+% reliable services, ensuring that staff are able to safely access control centres and other critical facilities is required. Just one example of how an industry member has responded to protect its employees is Intelsat which established a COVID-19 Task Force, activated its internal staff communications Emergency Broadcast System, and implemented digital-collaboration tools and remote-operations applications. This enabled Intelsat to continue to deliver its services with no disruption to global operations. Similarly, ST Engineering iDirect has utilised its COVID-19 internal response team to communicate in real time with employees over a cyber secure IT infrastructure built for a mobile workforce. Yet another example is Marlink which has implemented a COVID-19 response plan that established a crisis team that meets daily to closely monitor, coordinate and direct specific actions to protect its employees, and ramp up its’ IT infrastructure to support both employees and operations.

While these are just a few examples of how the communications satellite industry has responded to the pandemic in ways to protect employees, it’s similarly clear that industry members have responded to the outbreak by implementing social distancing requirements in critical operational facilities, providing personal protective equipment to essential staff, and instituting health checks for essential staff.

Assisting Suppliers and Customers

Much attention is necessarily paid to helping customers respond to – and withstand – the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the communications satellite network has also assisted suppliers upon which the industry’s health is dependent. Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s leading aerospace, defence, and security solutions companies, is scaling up the money it is advancing to businesses in its supply chain for the period of the pandemic. Initially announcing an advance of US$53 million, this was subsequently increased to more than US$106 million and then again increased to a total of US$156 million. Added to this, linked to changes in the United States Department of Defence progress payment policy, Lockheed Martin has estimated that it will be able to flow down over US$450 million in accelerated payments to supply chain partners who are critical to supporting the United States economy and national security. Norsat International is another industry member that has responded by assisting its downstream suppliers. In this case, Norsat International is focusing on its inventory stock levels to ensure supply chain business continuity by working with its suppliers.

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be overstated, and the customers of the communications satellite industry have not been spared. In some cases, customers such as the airline and the cruise ship industries have been especially battered while others such as the oil and gas industry are being hurt by both the COVID-19 pandemic and adverse changes in supplies and pricing. Many within the communications satellite industry have responded by instituting programmes designed to reduce the impact of these forces on their customers. For example:

  • Arabsat has put its satellites in service of the health, educational and civil defence sectors in the Arab countries, to help them broadcast educational content for all students at home and deliver messages to the public from its official sources.
  • EchoStar/Hughes is working with its global network of local field service partners to establish contingency plans for installing and servicing customers’ networks.
  • EchoStar/Hughes is also participating in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” initiative by deferring service terminations and waiving late fees for financially challenged customers.
  • EchoStar/Hughes is helping connect nearly 1.5 million subscribers across the U.S. and Latin America providing links to critical information such as precautions to help curb the spread of COVID-19, establishing a  community hub for students to get online for schooling, and providing internet and TV programming to health centers.
  • Eutelsat has implemented its Business Continuity Plan for key workers in mission-critical posts which enables its teleports and control centres to operate nominally and support Eutelsat’s customers who are reliant on Eutelsat services.
  • GVF and SatProf are offering a 90-day payment deferral for those who are seeking online training opportunities in a transformed employment market which has seen many people lose their jobs. GVF Training remains fully operational and available 24/7 so those working from home or those recently unemployed can take the online courses at a convenient time and increase their abilities.
  • Inmarsat, the leading provider of VSAT and L-Band services at sea, has introduced a 50 per cent discount for crew voice calling services available for up to 40,000 ships on a 24/7 basis until the end of June. Inmarsat’s assistance recognises the unique needs of maritime crews facing prolonged isolation from land-based medical assistance along with the critical role cargo vessels play in the global economy.
  • Inmarsat is also enabling nil-cost medical advice and assistance, prioritising telemedicine service development with its application partners, and working with shipowners to find other ways of subsidising increasing bandwidth demands from vessels.
  • Istotropic Networks’ fully automated business continuity solutions are helping its customers configure systems for load balancing as internet usage has dramatically increased during the pandemic.
  • Industry members such as Marlink and ST Engineering iDirect are providing 24/7 technical support for customers facing increased demand or other challenges resulting from the pandemic.
  • In Australia, NBN on 30 April extended its offer to increase download data limits for its standard Sky Muster satellite service to 90GB of data on average for an additional two months. The offer, which came into effect at the end of March, provides an additional 45GB for each standard Sky Muster service at no additional cost to internet providers.
  • Telstra is providing unlimited data for personal and small business customers with home broadband plans, including those operating over National Broadband Network (NBN) satellite links.
  • Viasat is participating in the US Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” initiative to defer service terminations and waive late fees for financially challenged customers through to 12 May. Viasat has also opened its Wi-Fi hotspots, in conjunction with partners, to any American who needs them.

The health of the communications satellite industry necessarily depends upon the health of its customers. Through programmes such as those listed above, and many more, the industry has provided significant assistance to its customers.

Helping Essential Personnel and COVID-19 Patients

Although the communications satellite industry has necessarily remained focused on continuing to provide ultra-reliable ubiquitous communications services to fight the effects of the pandemic, the industry has responded to the special requirements of COVID-19 patients, medical personnel, and other essential personnel. Such assistance has taken the form of:

  • Airbus is using 3-D printers to manufacture protective visor frames.
  • Boeing is using its 3-D printing capabilities at several of its facilities to manufacture face shields as well as donating tens of thousands of masks, gloves, and other PPE, and is analysing additional applications of its engineering, manufacturing, and logistics expertise.
  • C-COM Satellite Systems has produced a White Paper, ‘The Case for a Global Telemedicine Vehicle Network’ which sets-out a detailed proposal and business plan for the establishment of a “Global Telemedicine Vehicle Network”. Recognising that millions of people live far from hospitals and basic healthcare centres, the White Paper proposes establishing mobile clinics to serve such medical deserts.  Such clinics can be combined with broadband connectivity to connect rural patients with urban hospitals via satellites to enable consultation, diagnosis, and treatment.
  • Cubi-GATR-AID has teamed with medical professionals to design and develop a portable respiratory ventilator prototype, “VentiGATR”.
  • EchoStar/Hughes has introduced a new service, Hughes SatCell Connect, to deploy cellular connectivity on-demand to sites like remote hospitals.
  • Eutelsat, through its Konnect Africa subsidiary, is offering free broadband connectivity to entities engaged in the fight against COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It will enable teams working in the various sites to co-ordinate their efforts efficiently by sharing information in real time to help in the struggle against the spread of the pandemic.
  • Kacific Broadband Satellites Group is offering over 1,000 Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) at no cost. The VSATs can be used for rapid deployment and fast-tracked connection to the internet for healthcare departments throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Kacific is collaborating with local services partners and governments to provide special bandwidth pricing packages of US$1.7/Gbyte or less.
  • Lockheed Martin has donated US$2 million in personal protective equipment (PPE) and has begun producing face shields and providing engineering support for initiatives that accelerate the production of PPE.
  • Made in Space has re-tasked its equipment to make PPE masks, and its engineers are developing a rapid response ventilator adapter to enable a single ventilator to safely support multiple patients in extreme situations.
  • SES, and its SES Techcom Services subsidiary, is further developing its SATMED platform, new medical tools, and enhanced support for humanitarian operations in cooperation with both governmental and non-governmental organisations.
  • Skyrora is re-structuring its manufacturing division to produce face visors using their 3-D printing facilities and is also producing hand sanitiser with a target production of over 10,000 250ml bottles per week.
  • Thuraya’s network is carrying vital information flows for health workers in regions where terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure is weak or unavailable and is increasing capacity and ensuring service continuity as cellular and wired networks are straining to meet increased internet demand. Thuraya is also enabling augmented remote location solutions with its ambulance-to-hospital telemedicine system using its IP broadband terminals and satellite network which connects onboard wired and wireless medical devices to hospitals and medical professionals and thereby transmits coronavirus patients’ vital signs data in real time. This enables remote diagnosis and primary care.

Untold are the many examples of communications satellite networks being used to enable doctors to diagnose and treat patients, government officials to develop and execute response plans, essential personnel to communicate with one another and their families from whom they are separated by virtue of their work, and teachers educating their students via distance learning tools.

As a provider of the critical infrastructure needed to respond to and defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, the communications satellite industry depends upon the support of governments as the industry is also adversely impacted by the pandemic. Supply chains have been disrupted. Many residential and commercial customers are unable to pay their bills, and some commercial customers will go out of business. Services to commercial airlines and cruise ships have been greatly impacted by the unprecedented decrease in passengers. While the needs of the communications satellite industry resulting from the pandemic are many, one form of assistance can be provided by governments with no expenditure from the national treasury being required. Simply, governments which maintain the industry’s existing rights in spectrum while conferring rights to additional spectrum in under-utilised frequencies will be greatly assist the industry in responding to the many challenges it faces as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the communications satellite industry is being impacted by the pandemic, the industry can assist many companies and individuals impacted by the pandemic while assuring the safety of the industry’s employees. With continued support from governments and other stakeholders, the industry will continue its efforts to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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