When he set foot in Japan after March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, Charlie Mason was struck by the scale of the destruction.
“It looked like it had been hit by a nuclear blast,” Mason says. “There was nothing left standing that had been in the path of the wave. Large steel buildings were destroyed and everything else was washed away.”
The quake and subsequent tsunami killed more than 15,000 people, left thousands of others without food or shelter and damaged its nuclear power plants. Relief efforts in the quake-ravaged nation remain ongoing two months after the earthquake.
Mason, a logistics manager at U.K.-based humanitarian organization Save the Children, immediately set to work putting the pieces in place so the group could begin helping with the country’s massive relief effort.
Mason quickly realized that the communications in the area affected by the quake had been completely wiped out. Cell towers had been swept away by the massive tsunami and landline telephone systems had suffered similar damage. Even in areas of the country not directly affected by the quake, rolling power blackouts were wreaking havoc on communications networks.
So Mason turned to Save the Children’s tried and true method of communications in disaster areas: satellite phones.
Save the Children has been using Iridium satellite phones for several years to help its team communicate in war zones, major conflicts and regions affected by natural disasters. The devices, while lacking the aesthetics of modern smartphones, are incredibly rugged, come with useful accoutrements like extendable antennas, and work just about everywhere.
“It’s a chunky, rubberized brink which not might be the mobile of choice, but for us when we’re in disaster zones, they’re fairly robust,” Mason says.
It was crucial for Save the Children to keep its workers apprised of the worsening situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plan, as well as keep them up to date on whether aftershocks – many of which felt more like earthquakes – could cause an another tsunami.
Satellite communications remain the go-to standard for companies that need phones that can both withstand the harsh conditions of disaster areas and work anywhere on the planet. Large non-governmental organizations like Save the Children frequently employ satellite communications instead of cellular or landline communications, and satellite phones are also popular with the military, maritime industries like shipping and commercial fishing, and the aviation industry.
Ted O’Brien, Iridium’s general manager for the Americas, says the company’s products are particularly helpful in disaster areas where local communications infrastructure has been wiped out.
“Since we don’t require local infrastructure, no matter what has happened on the ground, you’re always able to communicate from the affected area,” O’Brien says.
Iridium’s network is comprised of 66 satellites that fly at a lower orbit to give a stronger signal to users on the ground. At the end of the first quarter, the company had about 447,000 billable subscribers around the world, including land-based satellite phones, machine-to-machine connections and government customers. Iridium works with distributors to sell its satellite phones. Save the Children has worked with independent supplier Castell Satcom Radio for the past eight years to help coordinate its use of Iridium’s satellite technology. Castell also supplies satellite phones and other communications equipment to Oxfam.