A coalition of satellite-communications providers preparing to offer next-generation services recently sent a letter to Congress requesting that emergency networks supported in part by federal funds be required to use devices that are capable of operating both on terrestrial and satellite networks.

Historically, first responders have used satellite phones, but typically as a last resort when terrestrial networks are unavailable—the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 being a prime example. But many first responders on the Gulf Coast at the time were unfamiliar with the current generation of satellite devices, which some claimed to be too cumbersome to use effectively.

In its letter to Congress, the MSS (Mobile Satellite Service) & ATC (Ancillary Terrestrial Components) Coalition said the launching of next-generation satellites will change this dynamic.

“Historically, mobile satellite communications technology required cumbersome devices and was prohibitively expensive. This is no longer the case,” the letter reads. “Technology has advanced dramatically, and satellite capability can be integrated into the very smart phones and laptops that are available today at only minimal incremental cost.”

These satellite-enabling chipsets are not limited to being integrated only into commercial devices, said Jennifer Manner of the MSS & ATC Coalition.

“LMR should be included. It [satellite capability] can go into any wireless device,” Manner said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “It’s really just a chipset issue. Once you have the chipsets, it’s really just a matter of some filters.”

This satellite capability can be integrated into devices so cheaply—for less than $5 per device, according to one filing with the FCC—because the next-generation satellites are so large that the devices receiving the satellite signals no longer need large antennas that don’t conform to the form factors used in modern wireless devices.

By having satellite-enabled handsets, first responders no longer would be solely dependent on terrestrial networks for their communications.

“By requiring seamless dual-mode operation on both terrestrial and satellite networks in end-user devices used on emergency networks that receive federal funding, Congress can ensure that--during times of emergency and when otherwise required for coverage—emergency responders would have an interoperable, reliable and ubiquitous means of communicating,” the coalition’s letter states.

“With such capability, emergency responders would never face a situation in which they lack access while some recovery protocol is implemented,” the letter continues. “The first hours after a disaster are critical and integrated satellite communications ensure network availability at all times.”

Members of the coalition expect to have next-generation satellites in operation within the next year. ICO Global Communication already has launched a next-generation satellite, and TerreStar Networks is set to launch a next-generation satellite in the spring, Manner said. Skyterra Communications and Globalstar are preparing to launch next-generation satellites later this year and next year.

“So you’d be able to see some competition,” Manner said. ‘We’re not just talking about one company; there will be several companies that will be competitors, which we thought was important to public safety.”

Of course, while integrating satellite capability into devices has become relatively inexpensive, public-safety users would have to subscribe to satellite services offered by one of the satellite-communications providers to use the capability. Skyterra spokesman Tom Surface said it is too early to determine the price ranges for such services.

“The pricing is going to have to be in such a place that it’s going to be attractive to mass consumers—in government, in enterprise and for consumers,” Surface said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “It’s going to be competitively priced, so that it will be attractive for the markets that are going to want and need this service.”