The Broadband Lifeline in a Pandemic: Strategies for Provisioning Broadband to Temporary Emergency Sites

Andrew Afflerbach, PhD, P.E.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires fast, creative tools to provision critically-needed broadband in dramatically different contexts. Earlier this week, we wrote about how to deploy Wi-Fi to multi-dwelling buildings such as public housing, to get urgently-needed connectivity to households that don’t have it. In coming posts, we’ll talk about how to get connectivity to single-family neighborhoods and to the most remote, rural areas of the country where there is no existing broadband infrastructure.

Today, I’ll describe a way for your community to meet another critical need – service to ad hoc emergency sites like surge hospital locations, triage centers, and even parking lots where mass testing or treatment may occur. And there will be a need for service to other ad hoc locations, like temporary housing sites for emergency and health care workers or national guard personnel. All of these will require broadband, fast, both for public needs and to support first responders and health care workers.

There are ways to rapidly provision this kind of service, fast, using fiber and high-speed wireless installations. Indeed, this kind of connectivity can be deployed within hours or days using mmWave equipment used to extend bandwidth from nearby locations that are connected over fiber.

Your community can deliver an emergency state-of-the-art solution, quickly, like this: The first step is a building that is connected over your city- or county-owned fiber and that is within a couple of miles of the emergency location that needs service. Ideally, you will have line of sight from the building to the emergency location. A temporary mast and antenna mounted on the building rooftop can deliver a high bandwidth mmWave signal to a receiver at the emergency site.

That receiver can be mounted at the site or in a mobile command vehicle owned by your jurisdiction.

Wi-Fi access points installed at the site can then distribute the bandwidth and deliver services to medical workers, responders, and patients.

If the location has robust infrastructure – in, say, a mall or office building — it is likely that the facility’s existing Wi-Fi network could be linked in.

More ad hoc locations—such as, for example, parking lot-based testing sites or tent encampments outside hospitals—will need special new connectivity, such as multiple Wi-Fi networks to manage different levels of security and access.

If city- or county-owned infrastructure is in reasonable proximity, leveraging those networks may help meet specific security and privacy standards, especially if health information is being shared, and public networks can be configured to have that level of robustness and security.

Sadly, this is not the first time such emergency communications have been necessary. In an earlier crisis, this kind of connectivity was established by the IT department of Arlington County, VA within hours after the plane hit the Pentagon on Sept, 11, 2001 and became the first communications to the Pentagon that day; the county used a receiver on a mobile command vehicle with a wireless link back to a county office building.

Please don’t hesitate to let us know if we can help you plan strategies for your specific situation.

Published: Thursday, March 26, 2020 by CTC Technology & Energy