SES Volunteer's Association of Western Australia Incorporated

One Association - Many Values

07/11/2023 – Remote Datacomms

New technology is a game-changer—Pt 1

All emergency services are becoming increasingly reliant on computerised data systems. Access to databases, mapping, voice and video etc. outside the office environment, generally relies on using the mobile phone networks to provide access.

The phone networks provide coverage for 99% of the population but cover only 27% of the land mass, meaning that the building of additional phone towers to extend the range of reception is unlikely as it would be uneconomic to do so. There- fore the mobile phone coverage is unlikely to expand much more.

Once outside a centre of population there is little or no ability to communicate via this means. This is a big problem for Emergency Services who operate in these areas, particularly during a natural disaster where what connections might exist could be inoperable or overloaded.

Until recently, the only solution was to use geostationary satellites to provide the data link. Unfortunately, the ground stations required to communicate with the satellites orbiting 36,000 km away are bulky, expensive and provide limited service.

Around 25 years ago the first of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites were launched, positioned 780km above the earth and allowed communication using hand-held devices (sat phones). This technology is still in use today and provides voice and limited text communication anywhere in Australia. While extremely useful, doesn’t provide an Internet connection.

In the last few years many thousands of small communications satellites have been launched to even lower orbits (around 550kms above the earth). The lower the orbit, the faster they travel and more satellites are required to provide seamless coverage, however the advantage is that they can allow smaller ground stations and provide much better transmission capacity or data transfer speed.

Remote Datacomms Part II will be published in November‘s Newsletter

Submitted by Chris Knight Local Manager SES Communications Support Unit

Starlinkground station

Recently the WA Police announced they were investing $8m to equip police cars in remoter areas with satellite data communications using the Starlink system. This means that these vehicles can now access all Police ICT systems in real time

whilst on the move as well as relay mobile phones and enable live stream of personal webcams, enhancing safety and effectiveness.

Over the past year, DFES have conducted trials of a limited number of Starlink systems. The SES Communications Support Unit (CSU) has been involved in these trials and successfully provided datacomms to the scene of natural disasters such as the Fitzroy Catchment floods, as well as Bushfires in Cervantes and Norseman where local infrastructure was compromised. These are highly portable, air-transportable systems designed to provide datacomms to Control Points.

For the technically-minded, we have gone from a 6Mb/s and 880ms latency for the equipment providing emergency comms at Kalbarri during TC Seroja, to 200Mb/s and 70ms latency recently at the fires near Norseman using Starlink. This represents more than a 33-fold increase in performance.

Performance has been consistently excellent, and the units have been very reliable, resulting in the intention to provide the units more widely in the regions.