Senate Looks at Benefits of Satellite Phones in Disaster Zones

WASHINGTON - The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) told lawmakers Sept. 22 that satellite technology has a key role to play in disaster relief efforts due to the vulnerability of terrestrial communications infrastructure.

"If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it is that we cannot rely solely on terrestrial communications," Kevin Martin told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "When radio towers are knocked down, satellite communications are, in some instances, the most effective means of communicating."

Martin was one of several witnesses at a hearing called to evaluate the effectiveness - or lack thereof - of communications available to relief organizations in the aftermath of Katrina, which knocked out terrestrial infrastructure in the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. The damage report included telephone lines of almost 3 million customers knocked down, 38 emergency 9-1-1 call centers disabled, more than 25 million calls failed and hundreds of thousands of customers without cable television, Martin said. Through the chaos, however, satellite telephones were effective, he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed Martin to elaborate on the point that satellite networks, while often relatively expensive and difficult to establish, are more resilient than terrestrial systems.

"So we should consider satellite communications as a part of our overall solution in response to disasters?" McCain asked.

"That's correct," Martin said.

If McCain was sold, so was Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.). "I certainly agree with Senator McCain about the value of satellite phones and their resilience," Sununu said.

But some lawmakers remain unconvinced of the reliability of satellite communications.

"My personal experience with satellite phones was that it was pretty spotty," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Martin said because of the potential problems with connectivity, satellite technology is best suited as a back up to terrestrial networks. The ideal scenario is to have integrated networks in which calls are automatically rerouted to satellites when terrestrial nodes are damaged, he said.

"I think that might be a more effective way to ensure everyone still has coverage," Martin said.

U.S. cellular phone service provider Cingular Wireless has a satellite-based network augmentation system under development and tested it out during Katrina. Paul Roth, executive vice president for external affairs and public relations at Atlanta-based Cingular, referred to the system as the company's "worst-case scenario" communications solution.

Cingular's Project Pegasus entails using a truck-mounted satellite dish, antennas and other equipment to allow Cingular phones to operate in areas where the local cellular towers have been knocked out of operation, Roth said during the hearing. Two prototypes were delivered to New Orleans for use during the storm's aftermath, and another was being shipped to San Antonio, Texas, in anticipation of Hurricane Rita, he said.

"Pegasus should be deployed in an emergency in key locations throughout the U.S.," Roth said.

Some senators questioned whether non-terrestrial forms of communications are appropriately equipped to dial 9-1-1 during disasters. But Sununu said this might not be the highest priority for satellite phones.

"We want to make sure we're encouraging innovation and new ideas rather than just saying everyone needs to participate in the system as it is," Sununu said.

The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled a second hearing on communications for first responders for Sept. 29.

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