Ensure Reliable Communication in an Emergency with LEO Satellites

Clear, reliable communication is vital in an emergency. Yet, despite technological advances, communication remains a hurdle in situations where it is needed most. Most Canadians take a reliable, high-speed internet connection for granted. However, recent incidents have highlighted the fragility of the country’s terrestrial communications infrastructure, and some rural and remote communities don’t even have access to a high-speed connection. This post will explore how vulnerabilities in Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure can hinder the ability of first responders to do their jobs and look at how low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity can provide backup emergency communications in an emergency.

The Impact of Natural Disasters and Human Error on Emergency Communications

Hurricane Fiona caused extensive damage to Atlantic Canada when it made landfall in September. Heavy wind and rain knocked down trees and hydro poles, leaving 500,000 residents across the region without power. Internet and cellular service were lost throughout Eastern Canada, though large telecommunications companies refused to divulge the magnitude of these outages. While first responders could communicate via two-way radio, other emergency personnel could not. For example, municipal staff in Halifax lost internet access, making it challenging to coordinate necessary emergency response measures, like setting up comfort centres in some parts of the city. Additionally, at the provincial level, many emergency response officials could not communicate with one another, hampering relief efforts.

Rather than rely on telecommunications companies that are either ill-prepared for an emergency or refuse to participate in emergency preparedness entirely, governments should explore solutions for backup connectivity. Canada could learn from some of the innovative solutions used in the United States, a county that has dealt with far more natural disasters. In addition to robust outage reporting required by the Federal Communications Commission, officials in the US make use of  Cell on Light Truck (COLTs). These mobile units leverage satellite connectivity to restore internet and cellular service in areas affected by outages. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida days after Fiona ravaged Atlantic Canada, the state deployed SAT COLTS to connect first responders during search and rescue missions.

If telecommunications infrastructure is knocked out in a natural disaster, citizens and sometimes first responders themselves rely on the broadcast media for updates. Media organizations could also benefit from backup communications systems. For example, news crews often rely on cellular service to transmit live coverage. Innovations in satellite technology and small satellite terminals enable broadcasters to transmit coverage via satellite in areas where communications infrastructure has been knocked out due to a natural or in remote areas where no infrastructure exists.

Human error can also impact the way emergency services operate. Earlier this year, consumers across the country couldn’t connect to the internet due to a widespread network outage from one of Canada’s few telecommunications providers. While the outage was merely an inconvenience for many people, it impacted the ability of first responders to deliver services in emergencies. Fearing her son had suffered a spinal injury, an Ontario woman was able to call 9-1-1 by borrowing a phone from someone who used a different service provider. However, the paramedics responding to the call were with the provider that was experiencing the outage. Without a network connection, the paramedics could not access GPS, and a dispatcher had to give manual directions to the location of the incident.  

These incidents highlight both the fragility of the country’s terrestrial communications infrastructure and the risks posed when such a vital service is left in the hands of just a few providers. A backup connectivity solution ensures first responders can provide uninterrupted service in an emergency.

Emergency Communications in Rural Communities

First responders in rural and remote areas respond to the same calls as their urban counterparts. However, they face many additional challenges. For example, they are often responsible for large geographic regions, and paramedics sometimes have to travel hours to transport patients to hospitals, and homes in rural areas can be hard to locate. They must also grapple with the problem many rural Canadians face, a lack of access to reliable, high-speed internet. In an emergency, every second counts, but for rural first responders, any delay in communication could be disastrous.

Inadequate communications infrastructure makes it difficult for first responders to do their already challenging jobs, and many attempts to improve communication have failed. In 2016 Alberta overhauled their provincial radio network to expand first responder communications in the province. Still, rural agencies raised concerns about “dead zones.” First responders reported that they could have service while driving to a location. Still, they would lose it in critical areas like seniors’ homes or correctional facilities. That same year a Manitoba-based software development company created a mobile app to help paramedics quickly access essential information like medication dosages and directions to the nearest hospital. Still, an internet connection is needed to use it.

Rural municipalities have tried and failed to work with large telcos to bring fast and reliable fibre broadband to their communities for decades. While innovative new community broadband network models are helping bridge the digital divide, there are still challenges in getting everyone connected. Fibre infrastructure takes time to build, but satellite connectivity can be a stop-gap solution for rural first responders. Additionally, satellite internet may be the only option in areas where the rugged landscape makes it impossible to lay fibre cable.

Connecting First Responders with LEO Satellite Connectivity

First responders need a fast and reliable communication method regardless of the situation. Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites manufactured by OneWeb can deliver throughput up to 150Mbps at latency levels as low as 50ms and can operate anywhere terrestrial communications infrastructure is unavailable.

The benefits of LEO satellite include:

  • Real-time Data Sharing: data and high-definition video can improve situational awareness, helping first responders make decisions faster. 
  • Mobile Communications: Air, land and maritime can connect with one another and ground personnel, vehicles, boats and aircraft can communicate on the move. Media organizations can broadcast from anywhere.  
  • Wide Networks: LEO satellites can be integrated into wider networks, enabling front-line workers to communicate with command centres hundreds of kilometres away.  

The ROCK Networks and OneWeb Advantage

ROCK Networks offers a variety of connectivity products to meet first responders’ demands with fixed and mobile solutions. In addition, ROCK Networks can guide you through the process of adopting OneWeb’s technology, creating a communications solution for your organization’s unique needs. We are here to assist with system training, integration, and support. Download our brochure to learn more.

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