Kymeta antenna on emergency vehicle

Emergency communications: Flintstones and Jetsons on one platform

A disaster preparedness exercise in Redmond, Wash., tested a platform that can automatically switch between cellular and satellite connectivity to give first responders and other essential personnel uninterrupted internet access.

The Redmond Emergency Management Division led the Cascadia Rising Solutions exercise on Oct. 18 and 19 to focus on readiness should the region experience a major earthquake. The idea was to address gaps in communication, transportation and situational awareness that surfaced during Cascadia Rising 2016, a Federal Emergency Management Agency-sponsored exercise.  The ultimate goal is to fix those issues ahead of the next drill, slated for 2022.

“Can we deliver the essential services in conditions that mimic the Flintstones through the Jetsons?” Pattijean Hooper, emergency manager at the division, said of the exercise’s goal. “Often it’s not that 911 doesn’t work. It’s that 911 has everybody calling, and it becomes overloaded, so do you have another way of getting things done?”

To that end, the division worked with Amateur Radio Emergency Service, a group of trained amateur radio operator volunteers, on using ham radios when cellular networks and the internet aren’t available for messaging  --  that’s the Flintstones, or low-tech, backup plan, Hooper said.

The Jetsons, or modern, high-tech approach, came from Kymeta, which built a flat-panel satellite antenna that enables connected platforms such as cars, trucks, dune buggies or boats to be constantly connected to high-throughput satellite for internet access. It determines without human intervention whether cellular, Wi-Fi or satellite will provide the best connection.

“In modern developed cities across the world, the cellular infrastructure is generally pretty good. It’s generally going to be faster throughput -- faster connection speed than satellite -- and it’s generally going to have lower latency than satellite. And in a lot of cases, it’s actually going to cost less than satellite,” said Ben Posthuma, connectivity solutions manager at the Redmond-based company. “So, when the cellular network is functioning well, we will put a majority of traffic over the cellular network.”

But when that network becomes congested, which can happen when there is an influx of people for a sporting event or during manmade or natural disasters, Kymeta will start offloading traffic onto the satellite. Because cellular connections have a lower latency time, voice calls and video chat often remain on cellular while communications like email or data transfer, which take longer, will switch to satellite. Additionally, Kymeta may send traffic, such as a critical voice, call or text messages, over both to guarantee that the message gets through.

“As soon as you turn it on, it recognizes where it is in the world, it recognizes the satellite it needs to connect to and it connects up and stays connected,” Posthuma said.

For the 350-person exercise in Redmond, Kymeta put its platform in three emergency vehicles that had their cell reception turned off to simulate downed networks. Using the platform, first responders were able to send data and images and make calls, but the connection strength decreased outside Wi-Fi range.

One lesson the company learned from the test was that the platform should be physically and seamlessly integrated into vehicles but also function as a software platform on which users can build applications, such as translation services, Posthuma said.

The next iteration of the platform will provide an all-in-one integrated piece of hardware that has a platform for conducting full network management and full application hosting to provide a complete end-to-end services approach, he said.

Other tech organizations involved in the exercise include Microsoft; the OWL Project, whose systems can create a mesh network to provide internet access within a given area; Social Simulator, which creates simulation exercises; and InFlight Imaging, an aerial and ground imaging company. Emergency management agencies included FEMA Region X; the Vancouver, British Columbia, Emergency Management Agency; Lake Washington School District; and the Disaster Medicine Project.

“This is just a really, really great opportunity to bring a series of partners to the table and say, ‘This is critical,’ and ‘Let’s practice it ahead of time. Hopefully we’ll never have to use it, but if we do, we have a whole series of things that have pre-tested,’” Hooper said. “Getting the essential service to the citizen is what’s critical, not the way that we get it to them.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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