When things really go bad and terrestrial networks get wiped out or are otherwise unavailable — for example, in many areas along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — the value of satellite has been well-chronicled as an alternative method to communicate in such difficult situations.

But the plaudits have been accompanied by multiple criticisms of satellite technology, including the large size of satellite end-user devices, difficulties associated with the setup and operation of unfamiliar equipment, and the high costs associated with both the equipment and services from satellite providers.

Today, the satellite industry is embarking on a new generation of technology featuring massive satellites — each costing hundreds of millions of dollars — that enable user devices to shrink noticeably, making satellite technology more accessible to users. In fact, the integration of satellite capability into mobile handsets soon will be possible at a cost of just a few dollars per device. By tapping into the volumes of users long held by the cellular industry, satellite providers hope to alter their models from a premium, event-driven business to one that depends on more steady revenue flow from a broader base of customers.

If this transition can be made successfully, satellite technology should be a more effective communications tool for first responders, many of which only use satellite equipment in the more dire circumstances. The way in which satellite technology currently is used has resulted in many first-responders having the perception that satellite equipment is difficult to use — an understandable conclusion in such situations, said Hugh Donnan, enterprise vertical market manager for Stratos Global, a reseller and integrator of satellite connectivity.

"If you don't [use satellite equipment regularly], when you hit an emergency situation like 9/11, no one has time to sit down and say, 'OK, we need to do quick training on how this works,'" Donnan said. "Your adrenalin is pumping, there's stuff happening, and there isn't a moment to lose."

Technological improvements

To make satellite communications more accessible, industry leaders several years ago recognized the need for user devices to be capable of form factors similar to the popular portable devices that drive voice and data traffic over terrestrial cellular networks.

This realization changed the way companies like TerreStar approached designing a satellite system, company CTO Dennis Matheson said.

"The way satellites in the past have been designed is that you designed the best satellite that you could, and then you'd say, 'OK, what is the terminal I need to be compatible with the satellite?'" Matheson said. "What we've done is change the paradigm. We said, 'We know what handsets can do. Let's design a satellite that will be able to get down to those types of terminals that everybody uses today.' That's why the satellite is as large as it is — so you can use a handset that you basically use today."

In short, the larger the satellite, the smaller the device used on Earth can be. With this in mind, TerreStar is scheduled to launch the "world's largest satellite" on June 24, Matheson said. TerreStar has designed a PDA that will operate on AT&T Mobility's terrestrial networks and TerreStar's satellite network when a user is unable to access an AT&T network.

"We decided that the right paradigm was for the terminal to be the terminal that you would use day in and day out, so it was not something that you had to reprogram for everybody to use when a situation occurred," Matheson said. "It was all about making this operationally an everyday-use device."

This philosophy is shared by SkyTerra Communications (formerly Mobile Satellite Ventures), which is the only satellite provider to offer push-to-talk service over satellite, although Matheson said TerreStar plans to do so in the future. SkyTerra expects to launch its first next-generation satellite in about a year and launch a second next-gen "bird" at the end of 2010 or very early in 2011, SkyTerra spokesman Tom Surface said.

Like TerreStar, SkyTerra has received a license from the FCC to use 2 GHz spectrum terrestrially and is pursuing partnerships to build out these ancillary terrestrial component, or ATC, networks in that band. In addition to providing dual-mode handsets that will make satellite capability a "mainstream consumer item," SkyTerra plans to introduce devices suitable for the first-responder market, Surface said.

"We envision that there will be a ruggedized version for public safety and public service where they can use one phone to make their terrestrial phone calls, as well as falling back to satellite when the network is congested, damaged or destroyed," he said. "It will be hardened and made to military specs, so if you drop it, it will still work. If you have gloves on, the buttons will be big enough that you can use it."

Cost/capability impact

Initial versions of the TerreStar device will include separate chipsets for the cellular and satellite networks. In the future, satellite capability will be integrated into chipsets built by Qualcomm and Infineon for cellular-device manufacturers. With satellite capability already built into the chipsets, the incremental cost for adding satellite access to future cellular devices — for instance, adding the necessary transmitters and receivers — will be less than $5 per unit for the manufacturer, Matheson said.

"That is not to say that the eventual manufacturer and distribution partner will not reserve the right as to how to price them," he said. "So it is premature to tell you what the end price would be for a dual-mode device, but the cost to put the technology in it is minimal."

With the cost of adding satellite capability to devices being so minimal in the future, the potential for integrating satellite capability into LMR devices is certainly within the realm of possibility, Matheson said.

"We believe that is a natural evolution of those units and believe that we will see those types of configurations as we move forward," he said.

Surface echoed this sentiment.

"The technology is there for that, [but] we are not looking at that for our company to do," he said. "However, whoever we end up partnering with may look at that as an opportunity and a need that will be fulfilled. The technology will allow it. It depends on who we partner with whether that will be enabled."

While these future capabilities are promising, the impact of next-generation technology already is being felt by customers of satellite provider Inmarsat, which completed its fourth-generation satellite constellation with the launch of its third such satellite late last year, Donnan said.

At the beginning of the decade, Inmarsat offered satellite connectivity through expensive global area network, or GAN, terminals — costing $10,000 to $15,000 per unit — that provided peak throughput of 64 kb/s, although users could reach data speeds of 128 kb/s by bonding two channels together at double the cost, Donnan said. In addition, the terminals were capable of supporting only one application at a time.

By leveraging today's next-generation technology, Inmarsat's latest broadband global area network (BGAN) terminals are more portable, easier to use and cost between $2,000 and $5,000, Donnan said. Inmarsat last month started offering guaranteed data rates of 384 kb/s to BGAN users, supporting voice and data usage simultaneously.

"Now, you've got four or five times the capability at about a third of the price or a little less," Donnan said. "In the past, we certainly have heard the questions about the cost of the equipment, air time and subscription fees, the fact that it's difficult to use and all of these things. The pricing of the new generation is far cheaper than previous generations."

Matheson agreed.

"Satellite capability is now going to be embedded in the standard chipset that gets shipped to hundreds of millions of phones that get shipped around the world overnight, thereby lowering the cost of satellite communication like it's never been lowered before," he said.

First-responder applicability

Indeed, pricing associated with satellite communications has decreased to a point where it has captured the attention of the public-safety community, especially for states that already have purchased round-the-clock bulk bandwidth on satellite systems, said John Powell, chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) interoperability committee.

"There are some people who are saying that a good case can be made to replace fixed microwave links — because the VSAT [very small aperture terminal] downlinks are so cheap — and run it all over an IP network," Powell said.

Mobile wireless consultant Andy Seybold also said he believes satellite can play a growing role in first-responder communications as a backhaul alternative when terrestrial networks are unavailable.

"What I think needs to be done is that you need to have public-safety networks on wheels that backhaul over satellite," Seybold said. "Because, if your system goes down, your system goes down. But, if I roll out a suitcase two-way radio system and I want to connect it back to command-and-control centers, PSAPs and everything else, and I don't have any telephone lines, satellite makes perfect sense to backhaul it."

However, both Powell and Seybold expressed concerns about public safety using satellite for voice communications, especially if it is used in conjunction with terrestrial networks, be it cellular or private. Seybold noted that the 500-milliseconds of latency — five times as much as a terrestrial push-to-talk system — associated with satellite signals would be "cumbersome and clumsy" if additional latency was added as the satellite and terrestrial system communicated with each other and executed handoffs.

Powell noted "laws-of-physics-type" problems that satellite has with in-building coverage and "canyon" areas, whether they are natural or manmade, such as between large buildings in a downtown area. However, he acknowledged that satellite capability could be very beneficial to some first-responder agencies.

"Especially for large rural areas, that might be a really interesting concept to explore further and build a business case on, just to see if it made sense to do it that way," Powell said.

Seybold agreed that a cost-effective solution such as this could be desirable to public safety but questioned whether the satellite providers and their partners could price it at a level that would satisfy investors — a problem that has been an issue for the satellite sector in the past, as both Iridium and Globalstar have endured bankruptcies during their histories.

"Just because somebody thinks they can do it this time doesn't mean there will be a return on investment that will work this time when it has never worked before," Seybold said. "I could be very wrong, but when I run the numbers, I can't come up with [a return on investment].

"It's not about technology. Broadband for all America is not about technology. First-responder interoperability is not about technology. All of this stuff is about economics, plain and simple. If you don't have the economics, you don't have the networks."

Matheson said he believes the access to a larger cellular customer base will improve satellite's economics, even if comparable service is less expensive.

"The problem in the past has been that it's a dedicated satellite phone and therefore, you had to charge huge dollars per minute, because that's the only paradigm you had," he said. "In the future, we're trying to have the possibility where that's not the case."

New dynamics of satellite

Another concern that first-responder agencies have had with satellite communications is that the technology traditionally has not been able to adapt to capacity demands of a large-scale incident, when an ever-increasing number of satellite users converge on a single location. Indeed, most satellite systems had little bandwidth flexibility. For instance, systems typically covered the Western Hemisphere with three "beams" of coverage and a concentrated demand for the provider's satellite resources resulted in best-effort service.

That is not the case with the new generation of satellite technology, which includes several hundred "spot" beams covering just North America — and the flexibility to redistribute bandwidth capacity as needed, such as when a large-scale event occurs.

"It increases the reuse factor of your spectrum, so you've got additional capacity across all those beams," Matheson said. "The other thing it does is [make us] very dynamic. We can focus up to 15% of our satellite power into any one of those spot beams, giving rise to additional capacity if a situation was to arise."

The ability to shift bandwidth capacity from one spot beam to another allows Inmarsat to guarantee data throughput rates for its BGAN customers, Donnan said. Hughes Network Systems also can dynamically shift bandwidth as needed, and others are expected to follow suit.

Meanwhile, Matheson said TerreStar has been working with the federal government on a variety of disaster-recovery situations modeled after events such as Hurricane Katrina.

"Every scenario that they've passed to us, we've been able to handle," he said. "The way that we've been able to handle those is that we — unlike satellites in the past that had large beam patterns — ours are much, much smaller."

By providing greater reliability, greater capacity and greater accessibility to satellite technology at less expensive prices for both equipment and service, providers believe next-generation systems will make satellite communications part of daily operations, not just a last-ditch alternative if nothing else is available.

"The traditional models of Iridium and Globalstar [dictate] that you pay 'X' dollars and cents per minute. We envision, with the mass consumer market, it will be a reasonable subscription to have this as an additional service on your monthly contract," Surface said. "Because we are looking at mass consumer numbers, it should be an additional subscription to a monthly charge that would be very reasonable, affordable and attractive. If you price it too high, it's not going to be attractive, and nobody's going to want it."

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