When a devastating tornado hit Uxbridge, Ontario, residents went out and helped, first responders were inundated with calls for help and the township’s emergency operations center swung into action.
But there was a snag.
The emergency management team was struggling because of the feeble internet and cell service at the Uxbridge fire hall where they were set up, Kristi Honey, Uxbridge’s chief administrative officer and head of the emergency operations centre, told CBC News.
“We were paralyzed,” said Honey.
“We literally had to send people in cars to mission control to discuss key operations.”
Using people to physically relay messages normally sent by phone or text is a common contingency when all else fails in disaster communications. That was true in Uxbridge, a town 77 kilometers northeast of Toronto, when the funnel cloud struck on May 21. It left a trail of destruction four kilometers long, flattening trees and power lines and tearing the roofs off buildings. It also knocked out backup options for telecommunications by severing some of the local connections to cell towers.
“The problem is that all of our redundancies failed,” Uxbridge Mayor Dave Barton explained.
Barton knew Doug Williamson, who runs his own IT services company, WillX, in Uxbridge. So he sent a text asking if “he knew anyone at Rogers” to help stabilize their connection.
Williamson says he wasn’t confident in the area’s internet service providers, Rogers and Bell, would be able to establish a stable connection any time soon.
So he had another option in mind; he recently set up his own residential connection to Starlink, a service provided by SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk. The system uses low Earth-orbiting satellites to connect customers to the internet. He took his round, knee-high dish to the fire hall and set it up in the parking lot with a clear view of the sky.
Williamson ran a cable through a window to power up the internet and VOIP cell for an operations center that had about 10 to 15 people using it at the same time.
Within 30 minutes, he says, it was all up and running.
“Everybody’s got to do what they need to do,” Williamson told CBC News. “Uxbridge is a pretty small town. This is where people need to come together and just do whatever they can possibly do to help their neighbors.”
Honey says Durham Regional Police officers also came by to use the fire hall connection and the speed and stability of the connection didn’t waver.
“It was a huge sense of relief,” she said.
“It brought all of our systems back online,” she said, allowing for constant emails and calls to the province, to outside agencies and to police.
“To know that he gave up his own Internet … just to set us up with a secure Internet at the fire hall, it speaks to the culture of the township of Uxbridge, neighbors helping neighbors, everybody stepping up.”
SpaceX says it aims to bring high-speed broadband Internet to remote and rural locations across the globe with its Starlink project. It’s also received attention for its disaster emergency applications. Starlink’s been used to boost internet access in Ukraine after the Russian invasion and poor first responders following natural disasters in Washington, Kentucky and beyond.
“No question, we will be purchasing a Starlink system for emergencies like this. We need absolutely redundant communications,” said Barton. Williamson told CBC News the system cost him $811 to set up and its monthly price tag is $160.
“I’ll be telling my fellow mayors that this is something that’s really important.”
Experts advise caution
The company is now rolling out a portable version of Starlink’s disaster emergency application.
But while emergency management and telecommunications experts agree there is potential for Starlink to become a powerful tool, especially for small towns in Ontario with relatively flat terrain, advise some caution.
Starlink’s “relatively” low cost, easy setup and its satellites being in a far lower orbit than traditional satellite internet providers makes it an attractive option, says Peter Anderson, director of the Telematics Research Lab at Simon Fraser University.
But he warns the company is in its infancy, rolling out in Canada only last year, so its reliability and capacity needs to first withstand the test of time.
Jack Rozdilsky, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at Toronto’s York University, advises a “thorough cost-benefit analysis” before purchasing a Starlink town kit. He says it’s important to keep in mind that it’s built by a private entity with its own “idiosyncrasies.”
Rozdilsky points to instances where Musk’s promises never came to fruition, such as a rescue operation in Thailand where he offered help to a team trying to get 12 young Thai soccer players out of a partially flooded cave.
That did not “necessarily work out as intended,” he said.
“We have to look at the company’s entire track record when we consider whether we want to make arrangements with companies for infrastructure that could become critical to disaster response.”
Rozdilsky suggests the Uxbridge tornado case offers an important case study in Ontario.
The federal and provincial governments have invested over $1 billion in low Earth orbit technology through a Canadian company, Telesat, saying the technology can provide much better performance than traditional satellite constellations and ground-based networks in emergency situations. But that service is still years away from being available.
For Barton, it comes down to one thing.
“We accept help from those who can help us. It doesn’t matter if it’s one of our neighbors with a chainsaw or Elon Musk.”