KANSAS CITY—For years, satellite communications has been a valuable tool for mission-critical communications, but its use typically has been limited to backhaul scenarios and instances in which terrestrial networks are unavailable.

For the most part, public safety has avoided using satellite communication on a regular basis for several reasons, most notably because it is perceived to be expensive, does not provide in-building coverage and LMR networks provide the needed coverage in most situations. In addition, the fact that handheld satellite devices are considered large and often unwieldy to operate doesn’t help matters, either.

But the fact that satellite devices are not used regularly by public safety creates difficulties in those instances when they must be used, such as during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when most terrestrial networks where not usable.

One company that hopes to make satellite part of public safety’s day-to-day operations is Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), which has long provided satellite communications to first responders by offering packages that are particularly attractive to agencies in rural areas that have little hope of being able to build terrestrial networks economically.

During the past year, MSV’s unique satellite push-to-talk service has been enhanced by the establishment of a series of talk groups—some nationwide groups managed by federal agencies and some regional talk groups, typically managed by state or local agencies, said Jim Corry, MSV’s vice president of government solutions. These talk groups are free to MSV customers and provide communications that is not subject to terrestrial problems, unless MSV’s land station in Ottawa is impacted, he said.

During the next several months, MSV plans to announce more regional talk groups—enough to blanket the United States, Corry said. While this would be a milestone for the company, he said the diverse and cooperative nature of these this talk-group rollout has wider implications.

“Take the word ‘satellite’ out of there, take ‘MSV’ out of there, and you can use this same model with LMR,” Corry said. “There are no technical issues to interoperability, just ego and control issues.”

Skeptics probably will note that the MSV talk groups are all on a single network, so interoperability model has a tremendous advantage when compared with the interoperability issues in the terrestrial arena, which features a patchwork quilt of bands and technologies. Still, with network-based interoperable systems becoming more commonplace and robust, every successful governance model is worth a look.

And MSV believes it can play a greater role for public safety in the future. The company has told that satellite can be used to provide truly nationwide broadband wireless coverage that would complement a proposed buildout of a terrestrial broadband network for public safety in the 700 MHz band.

By augmenting the terrestrial network with satellite service, an operator would be able to provide service throughout the nation quickly without having to build out areas that are not economically viable in the near term, making the D Block more attractive to potential bidders.

More important, when MSV launches its huge MSV-1 satellite in 2009 (expected to provide service in 2010), the size of the satellite means the antennas in devices can be much smaller. During the APCO conference this week, MSV unveiled a prototype handset and PDA that boast similar form factors to those operating on cellular networks today.

“The cigar antenna of the typical satellite phone [today] will be gone,” MSV spokesman Tom Surface said.
Just as important, the cost of satellite devices can decrease, as well, Corry said.

“For five bucks, you can put satellite capability into any device,” he said. “When we pull this off, I think we’re going to change a lot of the metrics.”

The notion of adding accessibility to always-available satellites to traditional handheld devices operating on cellular or LMR networks should have significant appeal not just to public safety, but the commercial market, as well. While the details of such business arrangements have the potential to get very complicated, the promise of such offerings provides yet another tool in public safety’s never-ending quest for greater reliability and interoperability.

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.