Going to the Super Bowl is typically a once-in-a-lifetime event. But not for Viasat.
Just as the company’s done in the wake of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, Viasat has twice provided emergency communications support for the Big Game. It’s there for a just-in-case scenario that’s so far never occurred.
“Because of the crowds, the cell towers get congested. Our network provides secure, quick connections for first responders,” said Viasat International Operations Manager Juan Loera.
Satellite-based connectivity is a reliable option when natural disasters, network congestion and other problems could or do shut down terrestrial-based internet systems. But most of Viasat’s emergency communications requests are far from the bright lights of a football stadium.
Viasat and its Brazilian partner, Telebras, responded together in February 2019 to a mining dam collapse in southern Brazil, where more than 200 people died. The day after the disaster, as emergency responders searched for survivors, technicians set up a temporary communications network for them. They mounted antennas and equipment on any available surface they could find – concrete blocks, cable reels, even mud-mired cars – giving free internet to first responders, police, the military and medical staff.
Because Viasat’s roots are in providing communications equipment to the military, government representatives often reach out to the company for support during natural disasters.
In some cases, Viasat employees go to the disaster sites. In late 2018, they supported the military while it helped victims of floods triggered by Hurricane Michael.
In others, it’s the company’s retailers looking to help in an emergency. These are Viasat’s independent retailers, who sell the internet service in communities across the country.
In the past couple of years, Viasat retailers have set up temporary systems in emergency shelters in the wake of hurricanes in Texas and North Carolina and other states. They’ve also helped in the aftermath of volcanoes in Hawaii and wildfires in California. The connection is important to people who’ve been displaced from their homes, giving them a way to contact loved ones and do other business online.
Satellite connectivity from Viasat is also important for first responder organizations – like the American Red Cross. The Washington, D.C.-based humanitarian agency owns approximately 60 portable Viasat systems it can take to any emergency site. Each kit comes in a portable case that weighs about 30 pounds.
To date, most of Viasat’s emergency response work has been in the United States. But ViaSat-2 and future satellites are expected to extend the company’s emergency coverage reach further.
In Mexico, Viasat’s operations manager Eliezer DeLeon is working with a local government to create a new portable system that can be used in earthquakes and other emergencies if terrestrial-based cell service isn’t available.
“We are working on a model that lets them carry the equipment to a site where it’s needed most,” DeLeon said. “It can function as a control center where they can re-establish connectivity at least for Wi-Fi or messaging to central command.”
“Offering something that’s flexible and affordable is key to these efforts,” DeLeon said. “The goal is to create a solution that’s easy to move and inexpensive. We are just in the first stages of this project, trying to create a model to offer to different organizations and governments.”
Along with the Red Cross, another entity interested in Viasat’s emergency response capabilities is NATO. In the fall of 2018, the company was part of a large-scale field test to show how portable satellite terminals can be quickly set up in the event of an emergency.
With the anticipated launch of Viasat’s forthcoming class of Viasat-3 satellites, we hope to expand the company’s ability to provide such help to other locations around the world.
“As long as we have coverage and there’s a need for emergency response support or special event supports, there will be a need for this,” Loera said.