Emergency internet via satellite: Starlink deployment during the flood disaster

When the floods hit Germany and neighboring countries between July 14 and 17, 2021, over 180 people lost their lives. Those who stayed behind may not have just faced the loss of friends and family; Tremendous damage was done to practically everything that reached the water. The disaster caused all supply networks to collapse in many places.

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More from c't magazine

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Communication is one of the most important basic needs of modern society. On these days in July, however, it became clear how fragile the infrastructure used for this is: According to Telekom, over 300 cellular base stations failed in the course of the events; O2 and Vodafone felt the same way. Flooded exchanges and destroyed cable ducts brought communication to a complete standstill in many places. At times, more than 1,000 people were reported missing because they could no longer report to relatives and friends.

News and pictures of the flood disaster must also have arrived in Hawthorne, California, the headquarters of SpaceX and Starlink. The satellite internet provider of the entrepreneur Elon Musk contacted the German Ministry of the Interior (BMI) shortly after the disaster and offered help to provide internet connections in cut-off areas via Starlink. The mass constellation of satellites in near-earth orbit has been under construction since 2019 and provides low-latency broadband Internet access in the three-digit Mbit / s range.

The BMI passed the offer on to the staff of the State of Rhineland-Palatinate, where they did not hesitate and accepted it. According to its press office, there was little organizational effort: SpaceX itself took care of the fast delivery of the Starlink satellite modems to Germany. With the help of Tesla, the sets were transported to the collection point for emergency services at the Nürburgring. There, the technicians responsible for subject area 6 (ICT, information and communication) were instructed in the configuration by Tesla and SpaceX employees.

Nine employees, one from SpaceX and eight from Tesla, supported the installation. On July 20, shortly after 2 a.m., the first groups of emergency services and Starlink technicians started their journey to the affected areas with the Starlink sets.

The sets provided for the flood areas correspond to those that Starlink is currently delivering to beta testers. A commercial offer does not yet exist. Nevertheless: A Starlink set not only comes with all the hardware required to establish a connection to the satellite network, but also with a WLAN router. The device has dual-band Wi-Fi 5 with two MIMO streams including multi-user support. The set also includes a large Power-over-Ethernet adapter (power and network via twisted pair cable), which supplies both the satellite modem and the WiFi router with up to 180 watts of power, with a maximum of 100 watts on the Satellite modem come with a 30 meter lead. The components are color-coded and already connected in the box, so that installation errors are practically impossible.

Technicians from Tesla and SpaceX installed the Starlink systems together with the fire service and technical relief organization. Sometimes the groups were out in the middle of the night.

(Photo: Stefan Diehm)

The set is set up with the Starlink app, which guides you through the installation process in just a few steps and immediately afterwards provides information on the connection and its quality. C’t was also able to test the facility on a Starlink set; Anyone who otherwise configures DSL routers may feel under-challenged under certain circumstances. Stefan Diehm, a fire fighter who accompanied the facility on site, said in an interview with c’t that in many cases it would not have taken more than 30 minutes for installation and commissioning.

The Starlink sets for emergency aid were uncomplicated to use because they were delivered ready-to-use with a WiFi router and set up using an app. As a rule, the technicians needed less than half an hour per location.

(Photo: Stefan Diehm)

During the first use, the groups set up 20 Starlink hotspots in several locations, including Ahrbrück, Ahrweiler and Liers. Most of the time, the hotspots were installed at info points where those affected can get help and information.

The prerequisite for the installation is always a solid power supply, because the Starlink sets are power hungry: The power consumption of the Starlink sets is between 60 and 100 watts. Most of this was done by an emergency generator at the info point.

A short time later, 20 more Starlink accounts followed. According to the staff’s press office, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate now has 50 Starlink systems, 46 of which are still in use. They run at different locations as required.

According to the press office, primarily those affected and helpers use the Starlink hotspots. But the authorities and organizations with security tasks (BOS) also use it to secure their communication structures.

Whether on a command vehicle or emergency power generator: the fully integrated satellite modem aligns its phased array antenna without the user having to do anything using motors that can tilt and turn the entire upper part.

(Image: Carsten Spies)

Our contacts at the BOS said they were positive about the system and how easy it was to set up. The system is practical, for example, for command vehicles that need low latencies for telephony, but would do well not to be dependent on mobile communications. The hotspots were also well received by the population.

The Starlink app integrates all sub-areas of the system, from the setup process to router configuration and connection statistics. That makes it very easy to use.

However, you also mentioned that the quality of the Starlink connection was not recorded in detail. Problems and hackers could not be blamed on the provider. The company clearly communicates that this is a beta test. There are currently 1632 Starlink satellites in space.

In c’t 21/2021 we took a closer look at mini-PCs for (almost) every purpose. They take up little space and can be installed inconspicuously. However, if you want an individual configuration or want to upgrade later, you have to make targeted purchases. Also in the booklet: Your way to the individual cloud server, online photo storage for Android and iOS in the test and accessibility with Alexa. Issue 21/2021 is available from September 24th in Heise shop and at the well-stocked newspaper kiosk.


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