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Colt Fire - Remote Internet Solutions

Rural Montana faces challenges with Internet connectivity. The lack of infrastructure along with huge mountains, forests, and sparse population make it a difficult place to get Internet connectivity, let alone cellular signal. A while back when the Colt Fire started, TechNellogic was looped in to secure reliable Internet connections and networking solutions in these difficult situations.

Last year, I hiked with my in-laws into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Ten-plus miles deep into the backcountry, there was not a bar of cell service to be found. I had to continue working and receiving email, texts, and other correspondence, so a solution was needed. The solution ended up being a small Jackery portable battery with a 60-watt solar panel along with a Starlink dish with Starlink’s mobility service enabled. In the middle of the woods with no other connectivity options, I was able to get over 100 Mbps download speeds. It was a modern miracle!

Fast forward to this summer, and a similar set of circumstances arose. The Colt Fire has burned a stretch of land near the Swan Valley up north of Seeley Lake, MT. The brave firefighters and crews that work the fire rely heavily on strong Internet connectivity. This generally was not an issue while they were headquartered out of a local school, thanks to a robust Wi-Fi installation that we manage backed by incredible fiber Internet service from Blackfoot Communications in Missoula (shoutout to Blackfoot, your fiber Internet is awesome!).

The main challenges came in two different parts once the school was no longer available for use as headquarters. The first of these challenges was for firefighter crews who were out near the fire line. Without cell service, they still needed to connect to the Internet quite frequently to download updated fire maps and communicate with their teams. Up until then, they had to drive around the fire perimeter to get back to the highway to get a cell signal. This was a big time sink.

One of the solutions came on the back of the wilderness story from before. We deployed a large battery pack, a 100-watt outdoor-rated solar panel, and a Starlink kit. The deployment was relatively mobile and allowed an Internet beacon of sorts for crews to fall back to or camp near at night, providing them fast Internet without the need to go all the way back to the highway or headquarters. We also deployed a similar solution that leveraged local cell towers of a lesser-utilized wireless provider, again backed with solar panels and large battery packs. This again allowed for high-speed Internet access where Internet infrastructure and power were not available.

The second challenge was the fire crew headquarters needing to move from the school out to a remote camp. Cell service at this location is nearly non-existent, only generator power is available, and it is not near any Internet backbone. On top of this, there were about 15 yurts or tents that each needed fast, reliable Internet once again. The solution was deployed in the following fashion:

Two Starlink kits were deployed on top of a tall storage structure to provide a clear view of the north sky. These two Starlinks then fed their Internet connections back into a firewall. That firewall was set up in a load-balancing configuration. This allows both Starlink connections to be utilized by devices simultaneously and allows for more bandwidth for both upload and download speeds. If one of the Starlinks fails or gets blocked, the firewall switches all connections to the working Starlink. This redundancy and load-balancing configuration allows for fast, reliable Internet connections for the fire crew and staff.

From there, the firewall feeds the Internet connection into a switch, in a nearby yurt, which then in turn feeds around 15 Ubiquiti access points installed in each of the yurts. The yurts have a thick thermal layer – similar to a space blanket – as part of their ceiling and walls, making it difficult for Wi-Fi signals to make it out of each tent. Some of the firefighters dug shallow trenches and buried the Ethernet cable running to each yurt to power the access points. All the access points are on the same network and SSID, allowing laptops, phones, and other devices to seamlessly pass between access points without issue.

This has been an exciting (albeit primitive at times!) project to work on, and I wanted to share this solution that you might not get the chance to see every day.


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