[Courtesy of Peter J. Brown, originally published at Japanese in Space.]

JAXA WINDS satellite. JAXA photo.

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 Communications.

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 underway.

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.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch