SpaceX Sends Starlink Terminals to Assist With Tornado Response Efforts

As part of a deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, SpaceX provided 20 Starlink terminal kits. The State of Kentucky has also requested 30 to 40 Starlink terminals, which SpaceX expects to send out soon.

Satellite-based Internet access like Starlink’s service has shown promise for providing Internet connectivity in disaster areas. Natural disasters can create conditions that make reliable communication options like Internet access difficult to maintain.

Kentucky will operate the Starlink terminals in areas that have been hit by the recent tornados for two months. After that period, it will reassess the need to continue operating them.

Last year, Washington State used Starlink to assist with combatting wildfires in areas that included a 200-person village called Malden in which every building was destroyed.

In stark contrast, Verizon admitted throttling wireless data being used by California firefighters as they battled blazes. It denied that the rollback of “net neutrality” regulations was a factor and blamed it on a customer service issue.

Firefighters using Verizon’s data plans reported that they were being throttled to speeds that were 1/200 what they normally got while they fought wildfires that burned more than 406,000 acres. This significantly impacted their ability to receive critical information.

“[Verizon’s] throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services,” Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District chief Anthony Bowden said in a brief supporting New York State’s lawsuit aiming to block the termination of net neutrality regulations.

SpaceX also provided Starlink terminals to assist recovery efforts in parts of Germany that have been hit by floods over the summer.

Starlink could also assist with disaster response in remote, hard-to-reach locations. Brazil and Chile have both contacted SpaceX to discuss pilot programs in which Starlink could be delivered to communities that don’t have very many options for Internet access.

Starlink’s upload and download speeds are already approaching the capacity of “traditional” broadband access. With nearly 2,000 satellites in orbit, it shows promise in eventually providing global coverage (pending, of course, operating licenses from federal and regional regulatory agencies).

The terminals have demonstrated an ability to withstand harsh winter weather. However, testers said their ability to withstand summer heat in southern U.S. States could be improved.

Starlink has also indicated plans to release a terminal that can be mounted to large vehicles like buses and trucks. This version could be especially useful for natural disaster response teams that may need to move in large vehicles and set up mobile communications quickly.

(Despite what at least one driver thinks, a terminal may not be suitable to mount on the hood of your car, though.)

As of June 2021, Starlink had more than 500,000 potential customers on its waitlist and Elon Musk bragged that it had achieved the “strategically important threshold” of 69,420 simultaneously active users.

It has also shown that Starlink might be a viable alternative to services that throttle their customers’ data plans at the worst possible times. SpaceX says it doesn’t even have plans for “tiered pricing” for Starlink access, implying that it plans to provide the same speed for all customers, no matter what.