In late September of last year, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit America made landfall on the western coast of Florida. Over the course of the following week, Hurricane Ian’s 150 MPH winds would cause more than an estimated $113 billion in damages, and more than 150 fatalities.
One of the regions most hard-hit by the hurricane was Lee County, FL, with some local officials saying it could take upwards of five years to recover from the storm.
Not unlike other large storms and natural disasters, one of the casualties of Hurricane Ian in places like Lee County was the critical infrastructure. Electricity was knocked out for more than 2 million people, and critical communications infrastructure was compromised, as well, making it impossible for some residents to contact their loved ones or reach out for assistance.
Following the storm, a team from SES Space & Defense joined together with individuals from AWS, SimbaCom, and Help.NGO to bring much-needed communications services and connectivity to those impacted. We recently sat down with G Ramos Carr of SES Space & Defense to discuss what conditions were like on the ground, why satellite communications were needed, and what the team was able to bring to the response and recovery efforts.
Government Satellite Report (GSR): When Hurricane Ian struck, what impact did it have on the terrestrial networks and communications infrastructure in the State of Florida?
G RamosCarr: Hurricane Ian was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S. While it was technically a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Ian’s incredible strength and high windspeeds almost qualified as a Category 5. Overall, more than 140 miles of area across Florida were damaged.
In many of these damaged areas, there was a significant impact on critical infrastructure – including communications. In some of the counties impacted by the hurricane, we saw cell sites go down for several cellular providers. We also saw numerous aggregation points responsible for providing mobile backhaul for large regional areas impacted due to a lack of electricity or compromised fiber optic cables.
“Any time a disaster strikes or a major emergency occurs, those impacted want to communicate with loved ones. This need to communicate can’t be met when terrestrial networks are down.” -G RamosCarr
This meant that essential communications and connectivity services were not available for citizens. But it also meant that some smaller local and municipal government organizations had no connectivity or communications capabilities. Even with FirstNet available for disaster recovery and response personnel, there was a population of first responders that had no way to communicate with each other or coordinate operations.
GSR: When folks think about disaster response and recovery, they think about rescuing people from flood zones, and providing housing, food, and water. Why is restoring connectivity and communications also a priority in these situations? What capabilities are denied when comms are denied?
G RamosCarr: Any time a disaster strikes or a major emergency occurs, those impacted want to communicate with loved ones. This need to communicate can’t be met when terrestrial networks are down. Worse, this rush to reach out to family and loved ones only taxes and strains existing terrestrial networks. So, the networks that are still working become overloaded and incapable of meeting the demand placed on them.
Then, there are other things that need to be done for people to return to a sense of normalcy and “life as usual.” Insurance companies need to be contacted. Applications for government assistance and services need to be completed and submitted. These are all things that can only be done when there is connectivity.
And that’s just talking about the citizens impacted by the disaster. The first responders and disaster recovery personnel have their own connectivity needs. They need the ability to coordinate operations and activities. They’re often operating in difficult, dangerous environments and need the ability to keep in touch with each other or request help when needed.
Even with emergency cellular services like FirstNet available, there were some disaster and emergency response personnel without connectivity in remote locations following Hurricane Ian. There was one particular location in Lee County with no connectivity or communication services for search and rescue operations that were being conducted from a beachhead command center.
“Together, the team leveraged MEO terminal kits to deploy communications to those that were impacted by the storm.” -G RamosCarr
Operations and missions like these are dangerous enough and become more dangerous when there is no ability to communicate and call for help.
So, while food, shelter, and water are needed in disaster response scenarios, connectivity is imperative.
GSR: SES Space &Defense worked with SimbaCom, AWS, and Help.NGO to leverage MEO satellite connectivity to help in disaster response. What types of services did MEO deliver? What did it enable on the ground in Florida?
G RamosCarr: All three of those organizations played a key role in helping SES Space & Defense bring high-throughput, low-latency Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) connectivity to those that needed it after Hurricane Ian.
SimbaCom’s field service representatives volunteered to help in the relief effort and played a critical role in getting our MEO satellite terminals on location to deliver connectivity.
The AWS Disaster Response Team deployed to the area and used our MEO satellite connectivity as a backbone to provide connectivity. They even provided Amazon Distribution Centers as muster points for the local community, and command centers for our operations. And Help.NGO handled the logistics for the team – ensuring our people had what they needed to operate.
Together, the team leveraged MEO terminal kits to deploy communications to those that were impacted by the storm. Amazon Distribution Centers were given high-throughput connectivity so that those gathered in tents there could have the connectivity they need. Several municipal government buildings, like firehouses, were connected via high-throughput MEO connectivity to enable communications and the coordination of response efforts. We even enabled insurance claims processing for the Florida Department of Financial Services.
But the most impactful utilization our MEO satellite provided was to the beachhead command center in Lee County, where an 85CM terminal was deployed to help fill the communications gap for first responders. In that location, there was no connectivity. We were able to deliver fiber-like connectivity for them that was faster and more capable than even traditional satellite service.
GSR: Why was a NGSO satellite solution important in this use case? What does an NGSO satellite solution – like the O3b MEO satellite constellation – bring to the table that GEO satellites don’t?
G RamosCarr: In some of the emergency shelters and muster points where people were impacted by the storm, there were insurance professionals and government representatives that had satellite connectivity. Often, these individuals were equipped with traditional very small aperture terminals (VSAT) connected to GEO satellite services that were shared via a traditional TDMA network.
“The MEO satellite capacity that we were able to provide has an experience much more similar to fiber connectivity.” -G RamosCarr
Many of them found that they had limited bandwidth. That limited bandwidth was further limited because it was shared by everyone else with a VSAT. The satellite capacity that they were using wasn’t dedicated capacity – so every person with a VSAT was effectively competing for bandwidth and throughput. As a result, communications were impacted and connectivity was slow, spotty, or unreliable.
The MEO satellite capacity that we were able to provide has an experience much more similar to fiber connectivity. When plugged into a local distribution service, users thought they were using the same traditional backhaul used in their homes. They had the ability to access real-time streamlining video, access government and insurance company websites, and even video calls with loved ones. Ultimately, the MEO connectivity provided a seamless experience in the middle of the catastrophe.
It wasn’t long before those insurance professionals and even FEMA personnel were switching to the connectivity provided by our MEO satellite service. It was faster, more reliable, and similar to their traditional home and cellular networks.
GSR: How long did it take to get SES satellite connectivity established in Lee County? Is there special equipment that is needed? Is it a difficult or time-intensive process to get satellite connectivity delivered to an area like this?
G RamosCarr: Obviously, since the equipment wasn’t present on site and ready to be deployed to the location, we had to transport it from where it was stored to the impacted areas in Florida. However, once we were on site, we were able to deliver high-throughput, low-latency connectivity to those that needed it within hours.
Candidly, the largest slowdown that kept us from making a larger impact more immediately was awareness. The local government agencies simply didn’t know that we were on the ground and able to deliver this capability to them. Once they learned that the service was available, we were able to deliver it to them very quickly and efficiently.
In the case of Lee County, we were able to get the 85 CM terminal loaded, brought out to where they were operating, and get service deployed all within a couple of hours.