Even with good cell service, emergency crews might need satellite

The Paulding County, Ga., fire department gets a good multimegabit Internet connection for its mobile command center by bonding three cellular channels from Sprint and Verizon, adequate for supporting up to five laptops when the bus is rolled out in an emergency.

Most of the neighboring counties in Northwest Georgia use satellite communications as the primary service for mobile centers, said Paulding Fire Department Maj. Kevin New.

“Satellite is very costly,” New said. “This is a much more economical alternative to that. We’ve been very lucky with cell telephone service.”

Paulding is in the Atlanta Metro area, where cell coverage is good, and is south of mountains that extend into Alabama so that signals are not broken up by terrain. But in an emergency, just when the command vehicle’s communications are most needed, cellular service is most likely to be unavailable.

The county is considering the use of satellite service as a backup to its cellular links.

Emergency response agencies often rely on satellite communications such as Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network service, which can support IP traffic on shared channels up to 500 kilobits/sec. Voice codecs use about 4 kilobits/sec., so there is plenty of room left for data, even if it isn’t as fast as the 3 to 4 megabits/sec. that can be achieved by bonding three cellular links.

New services coming online in the next several years are expected to support up to 50 megabits/sec. through a small terminal.

Although Paulding County sees the need for a backup alternative to cellular, that might take a while under tight budgets. In the meantime, cellular carriers have made good efforts to keep service up during emergencies when infrastructure is damaged or increased volume threatens to swamp capacity, New said.

Sprint and Verizon are quick to respond with Cells on Wheels, or COWs, mobile cells that can be set up to provide coverage quickly in a stricken area. “They’re Johnny on the spot” in an emergency, New said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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