PEACESAT: A Communications Lifeline for the Pacific

April 12, 2012

GOES-7 satellite

An artist's rendition of the GOES-7 satellite, which NOAA leased to the PEACESAT program in 1999.  GOES-7 previously served as a weather satellite, capturing images of developing hurricanes and other severe storms that impacted the United States.  Credit:  NOAA Photo Library.[click image to enlarge]

Affordable, reliable Internet access is hard to come by in many parts of the Pacific Islands, where residents have to pay both hourly and monthly fees just for a dial-up connection. The Pan-Pacific Education and Communication Experiments by Satellite (PEACESAT) program, however, is dedicated to bridging the region's telecommunications gap.

With the help of NOAA satellites, PEACESAT develops and operates telecommunications networks in the Pacific Islands that offers programs in healthcare, education, disaster management and response and other public services.

“PEACESAT serves a really good purpose” said Norman Okamura, the program’s principal investigator. “There are so many communities today that do not have satellite capabilities.”

PEACESAT, managed in part by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, allows doctors in the United States to meet with Pacific Islanders through video teleconference consultations so the patient does not have to travel to the states.

PEACESAT Director Christina Higa said the program’s healthcare services are especially important in areas where residents do not have access to specialists. In American Samoa, renal dialysis patients use the program to consult with nephrologists—doctors specializing in kidney disease—in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Through the Shriners Hospital for Children, the program has provided free health care consultations to children in the Pacific Islands. In addition, Higa said Pacific Islanders have used PEACESAT to talk to family members who traveled to the states for medical treatment.

“This seemed to be an important part of the healing process,” she said.

The program also allows Pacific Islanders who previously did not have Internet access to participate in distance learning classes and video conferencing. Deaf children and families who did not have sign language courses available in their local community were able to learn it through video teleconference classes.

last image taken by GOES-7

The last image taken by GOES-7 before it was repurposed as a communications satellite for the PEACESAT program.  GOES-7 is the only satellite in the history of NOAA's geostationary program to serve both as the GOES-East and GOES-West spacecraft in the course of normal operations.  Credit:  NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory. [click image to enlarge]

Higa said the program provides communications before, during and after weather emergencies such as typhoons, which are common in the region.

The program was the first to offer Internet access, distance learning, and its other services, she said, because it was operating in the Pacific Islands before any commercial Internet service providers (ISPs). Higa said the program still provides a “dedicated link” to telecommunications services outside of the Internet.

Okamura added that most of the islands did not have satellite communications before the 1980s and PEACESAT allowed people in all parts of the region to work together. “It has touched a lot of people,” he said. “I wish we could have more projects like that.”

PEACESAT began in 1969 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) granted use of the ATS-1 satellite to the University of Hawaii for experiments in “development” and “public service” telecommunication. From 1971 to 1985, the program expanded to more than 140 sites in 23 political jurisdictions by 1985.

PEACESAT initially used NASA’s Application Technology Satellite 1, but in the late-1980s began repurposing out-of-service weather satellites from NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite(GOES) series as communications relays for its regional networks.

In 1999, PEACESAT began using GOES-7 after the end of its operational life. NOAA had to launch another satellite to provide reliable weather observations because the Earth-observing instruments on GOES-7 had degraded, but the communications instruments were still in good shape, according to Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellites and Information.

A scientist working on the GOES-7

A scientist working on the GOES-7 satellite before it was launched. GOES-7 was the first satellite to carry instruments for the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking System, which is used to detect and locate mariners, aviators, and recreational enthusiasts in distress almost anywhere in the world. Credit: NOAA Photo Library.[click image to enlarge]

“We were happy that PEACESAT could put the satellite to good use,” Kicza said.

The program previously used GOES-3 from 1988 to 1995 and GOES-2 from 1995 to 1999. Even though PEACESAT now uses other technologies, including public and private fiber, copper, and microwave networks, satellite telecommunications is still plays a major role in the program.

Higa credited GOES-7, as well as the previous GOES satellites used by PEACESAT, with being instrumental in the program’s success in providing Internet to schools, hospitals and healthcare providers over the last few decades.

“The PEACESAT program, as it has been organized, could not have been possible without the support of NOAA and the use of the GOES satellites,” Higa said. “We are very appreciative and grateful for all of the support over the years.”

Higa recalled that GOES-7 was the only means of international communications for many Pacific Island Nations when the Intelsat satellite failed in January 2005. PEACESAT received a call from the Republic of Palau’s Office of the Vice President to provide assistance during this crisis and provided communications to many other island countries.

She said that without GOES-7 and PEACESAT program, Pacific Islanders would have had no communication with the Federal Aviation Administration and banking and credit systems. They also would not have even known the cause of the outage.

Higa said one particularly memorable event was when PEACESAT through GOES-7 connected fathers serving in Iraq to their children’s graduation ceremony in American Samoa.

“There are so many literally life changing and even life saving stories about PEACESAT’s use of GOES-7,” Higa said.

She also said NOAA put its investment into the GOES series and helped PEACESAT save money by essentially recycling the satellites for a much needed service.

GOES-7 was the last NOAA satellite that the agency could offer PEACESAT because the newer generation satellites are too complex for another organization to manage. Higa said PEACESAT is working with other partners to find funding sources and transition to using a commercial satellite network.

Although technology has advanced in many parts of the Pacific Islands, Higa said the program still has work to do because some parts of the region are still lacking in telecommunications services.

“That is still a very big need,” she said.

NOAA Press Release in GOES-7 Deorbit