HEAVENS HELP US
It has been a tumultuous seven years for the satellite industry. After a series of financial disasters staggered the likes of Iridium, Globalstar, ICO and Teledesic, the satellite industry now is dusting itself off and embarking on a new era, one that includes service enhancements, cost improvements and high-speed data services that cater to first responders and enterprises in need of communications anywhere.
In 1998, Iridium was a marketing master, hyping the demand for its services so much that many investors became rich buying its stock. It all came crashing down in mid-1999 when Iridium filed for bankruptcy. When ICO followed suit two weeks later, Globalstar fell with it. It turned out that worldwide demand for anytime communications at the time wasn’t as large as satellite backers insisted. Handsets were clunky and difficult to use, and the service was expensive.
“God knows, as an industry, satellite has over promised and under delivered,” said Tom Soumas, president and CEO of Agiosat Global Communications, formerly Satcom Systems Inc., which has been aggressively targeting the U.S. first-responder community with IP-based VSAT services that include bandwidth up to 100 Mb/s, voice over IP, fax, data, Internet connectivity, video, virtual private networks and land mobile radio (LMR) over satellite.
Rather than positioning themselves head to head with terrestrial providers, satellite providers have made themselves indispensable in three areas: when swift deployment is needed, when no other communications options are available or when an agency or business desires a backup option should the terrestrial link fail. The value of satellite services as a backup option increased following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“People realize the vulnerability of terrestrial-based systems. We’ve seen a lot of demand,” said Ted O’Brien, vice president of market development for Iridium, which relaunched service after exiting bankruptcy in 2001, targeting more traditional markets rather than the professional traveler and high-end mobile user. Iridium is the only satellite constellation that offers global coverage, including the North and South Poles.
Since the financial debacles, satellite service providers also have become savvier about how they price and position services. Globalstar, for instance, introduced annual plans with pooled minutes, which gives customers an allotted number of minutes to use throughout the year that can be spread among a number of users. John Dark, senior marketing manager for Globalstar, said such plans are meaningful for government agencies that need satellite communications during certain times of the year and would previously pay for a monthly plan, even when service isn’t used that month.
“When we got back into the market in 2000, we looked at who was using the service and realized the user base really was no different,” Dark said. “We’re much smarter about pricing, and we’re doing a good job of educating the market. We’re seeing a big uptake as people become aware of satellite.” The provider’s voice-user subscriber base grew 45% from that of a year ago.
‘Critical and indispensable’
As the eye of three hurricanes — Charley, Frances and Jeanne — traversed through Polk County. Fla., over a six-week period last year, the local public telephone network was out of service in several areas of the county, including the state emergency operations center. Essential communications from the affected area to the state emergency operations center would have been impossible without satellite capability, said Ben Holycross, radio communications manager with Polk County.
“Satellite communications is an absolute must for agencies in high-risk areas or with deployment requirements,” Holycross said. “While the requirement it fills is small, it is critical and indispensable.”
Polk County’s Emergency Management Division (EMD) maintains two portable sat-com units of its own using service from Iridium, which operates a constellation of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites. These units are connected to the public network through Earth stations and essentially lets users make a phone call from anywhere in the world. EMD also maintains one fixed unit with several remote access points to the state of Florida Emergency Management Network. This unit works more like a radio but includes public network-connect capability as well. In addition, the sheriff’s department owns three mobile units on Iridium’s network, and each has a separate channel for use.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) outfitted nine vans with satellite dishes and computers that it uses to help local and state agencies coordinate rescue and restoration in disaster situations. Rex Whitacre, chief of information technology district operations for FEMA, said satellites are suited for quick installations. With its vehicle-mounted system, FEMA has the ability to roll out service within an hour by connecting the satellite dish to its enterprise network.
Agiosat deployed more than 15 systems to 10 states during last year’s hurricane season to provide FEMA and state disaster response agencies with connectivity for first responders, disaster management personnel and the public. FEMA then contracted with Agiosat to build 20 mobile systems, and the provider’s teleports will support the units during this year’s hurricane season. Through a number of acquisitions and joint operating agreements with providers such as Inmarsat — reached in 2004 — Agiosat controls four teleports located in Atlanta; Burbank, Calif.; Los Angeles; and Honolulu. From these four hubs, the provider can reach anywhere in the world in both the C and Ku bands.
FEMA also utilizes single-channel voice systems from Globalstar, which emerged from bankruptcy a year ago, and mobile satellite (MSAT) units that run on satellite service from Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV). FEMA primarily uses Globalstar units in the U.S. because of their small form factors and their ability to search for terrestrial commercial service before rolling over to more expensive satellite service. Globalstar operates an LEO satellite system, which the company says is more advantageous for low-power mobile hand-held and vehicle-mounted equipment.
MSV owns and operates the MSAT1 and MSAT2 geostationary satellites, which provides a wide range of mobile communication services, including voice, dispatch radio, circuit-switched and packet data, and fax but uses devices larger than a hand-held mobile. The coverage area extends to North and Central America, northern South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and into coastal waters. FEMA uses these units in territories where Globalstar lacks coverage.
In some instances, satellites are the only communications option for agencies in rural areas because terrestrial carriers aren’t willing to absorb the cost of running miles of fiber to a handful of customers. Mississippi Wildlife Services, for instance, uses service from MSV as a primary communications tool because the agency travels through remote areas.
Lowering costs, increasing service
Keeping its role in mind, the satellite industry is looking at ways to further entrench itself into the public-safety communications market via new features and/or data services.
Agiosat’s goal is to marry satellite-based communications technology with existing public-radio infrastructure. The company is set to announce an agreement with Telex Vega during the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ annual conference in Denver this month to jointly market plug-and-play capability for satellite services within Telex Vega’s IP-based Vega Interoperability Portable Emergency Response (VIPER) unit. In an emergency-response application, the VIPER can be deployed to cross-connect up to 12 radios supporting different technologies and frequencies, allowing communication between numerous departments. Upon arriving at the emergency scene, each department on site connects one of its portable radios, which could include iDEN radios, to a radio port on the back of the VIPER using IP-223 as the radio interface unit.
“With the satellite piece, this is a complete communications solution,” said Tim Klabunde, marketing manager for Telex Vega. “Previously, someone would have to come in with a satellite radio or set up separate communications capabilities. Now we allow this in a much more straight-forward manner.”
Agiosat’s Soumas believes the first-responder community could realize significant cost savings by using this capability over the long run to extend two-way communications.
“We use the VIPER system to show the capabilities of extended two-way radio communications, without intervening terrestrial infrastructure,” Soumas said. “In plain English, we can cover New Mexico with $150,000 worth of equipment instead of $150 million. The commercial cost of bandwidth on a satellite doesn’t approach the maintenance expense of LMR systems, and we enable connectivity within the two-way radio realm over vast distances using satellite technology.”
While cost is a major factor as to why first responders and enterprises don’t use satellite service as a primary system, Soumas said Agiosat has developed service plans that offer bandwidth similar to that of a T-1 line — equal to 50 telephone lines — for less than $12,000 per year. Agiosat is able to do this through advanced bandwidth management technology, he said.
In February, Agiosat will introduce a service called Direct to Patrol Car, which will utilize $3000 omni-directional terminals for patrol cars to deliver all-you-can-eat data services with speeds up to 492 kb/s for less than $100 per month. The service will utilize InMarsat’s new broadband global area network (BGAN) satellites, one of which will be launched in November to cover the Americas. Terminals to support the service will become available before the end of the year.
“This will create a global grid of 3G service,” Soumas said.
Globalstar also is expanding its market opportunities through data. Though currently able to support data rates of just 9.6 kb/s uncompressed, it’s enough bandwidth for Globalstar to offer one-way data and simple two-way data applications such as checking for warrants in remote areas, Dark said.
Asset tracking has emerged as a prime application for many government agencies responding to disaster areas. Agencies typically lose about 20% of the goods and equipment they ship into disaster areas because they have no way of tracking their whereabouts. By tacking onto the assets a data tracking unit — which sends out GPS coordinates — these agencies saw their recovery rate increase to the high 90% range, he said.
“They’re typically going into an area where there is no coverage with cellular, and we are the only asset-tracking solution that has the coverage required to make it meaningful,” Dark said.
MSV currently is the only satellite provider to offer push-to-talk (P2T) capability over satellite. The provider announced a compact dispatch radio P2T handset, developed by Hughes, earlier this year in response to demand for dispatch radio service. The handset is designed for use with MSAT terminals.
MSV also recently received approval from the FCC to offer an ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) in conjunction with its mobile satellite services, while Globalstar has applied for ATC status. ATC allows mobile satellite system (MSS) operators to reuse their frequencies and offer cellular-like service alongside their satellite services. MSS operators have argued that incorporating ATC would solve a fundamental problem plaguing their industry — operators’ inability to penetrate buildings with satellite signals, a technical shortfall that has had a tremendous constraint on demand and resulted in higher operating and equipment costs.
“It is going to give us a ubiquitous network with transparency between terrestrial and satellite components,” said Austin Comerton, channel manager for MSV. “This next generation would have the benefit of the technology advancements in the last 10 years and achieve much greater power in much smaller circles of operation. … The more power we can get down [to a terrrestrial level], the smaller the device we can use.”
Adding terrestrial capability requires MSS companies to invest in and build out infrastructure, but they hope to recoup the costs through the new services ATC will bring, such as higher bandwidth and the ability to compete with the likes of Nextel Communications to provide adjunct communications.
“The economies of scale will come in,” Comerton said. “One of our goals is to move more and more toward where service pricing is in line with what the market is familiar with in terms of a terrestrial perspective.”
For its part, Iridium says it continues to study ATC and how it might impact the business. “We’re seeing very strong demand for the services we have today,” O’Brien said.
Iridium earlier this year announced plans to offer P2T service to the Department of Defense by the end of the year and to other customers during 2006. The solution will allow hundreds of users worldwide join a talk group secured by end-to-end encryption. Iridium users wanting to use the P2T service must upgrade their 9505 and 9505A phones with new software and a P2T ancillary device.
“Any place where you have teams of people doing field service work, there is strong demand for that feature,” O’Brien said. “This will spark a whole range of applications we haven’t even thought about.”
|Agiosat||VSAT, C and Ku band||Bandwidth up to 100 MHz, VoIP, POTS over IP, fax, data and Internet connectivity, video, VPNs and land mobile radio over satellite||U.S., Europe, Central and South America, Africa and the Caribbean.|
|Globalstar||LEO satellites||Satellite and terrestrial voice, dial-up data, direct Internet data||Global|
|Iridium||LEO satellites||Voice, dial-up data, direct Internet data||Global|
|MSV||Geostationary satellites||A wide range of mobile communication services, including voice, dispatch radio, circuit-switched and packet data, and fax||North and Central America, northern South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and in coastal waters|
TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A SATELLITE PHONE
- Where am I using the phone?
Local satellite providers have lower per-minute rates, while worldwide system are higher in price because they require more satellites.
- Do I need a hand-held, fixed or marine phone?
Hand-held is the most popular choice but has slower data speeds and a higher drop-call ratio. Fixed phones are good for a stable voice, fax and Internet connection. Marine has a higher equipment cost, but is well worth it for safety at sea.
- Do I need fast Internet speeds and fax?
Sat phone speed ranges from 2.4 kb/s to 400 kb/s. The higher the speeds, the more you pay. If you are traveling in America or the Caribbean, Globalstar has an economical package. Iridium’s 10 kb/s is good for e-mail and a little Web browsing. For the serious mariner, Fleet 77 gives you a 24-hour Internet connection, and you only pay for the data that you use. If faxing is a must, check out Inmarsat, F77 or MarineSat.
- The cost: phone, airtime and monthly?
Now it is time to bring out the calculator. Add how many minutes you plan to use each month and multiply by the per-minute rate. All the services require a one-year contract, so multiply the monthly fee by 12. Add activation + airtime + monthly fees + cost of phone, and your choice should be clear.