Security Concerns Seen as Boon for Mobile Satellite Services

Mobile satellite service providers view the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a potentially large market as state and local agencies, either with their own funding or money from DHS , integrate satellite communications into their emergency-preparedness planning.

The three principal satellite-mobile operators in the United States -- Globalstar, Inmarsat and Iridium -- view their services as indispensable for agencies that must assume that in an emergency, land lines may be down and cellular networks either disabled or saturated.

Walt Gorman, director of specialized services at Globalstar of Milpitas, which operates a mobile satellite communications constellation, tells the story of a terrorist scare at the Dallas airport that forced the evacuation of the facility.

"You had 3,000 people getting on their cell phones at the same time," Gorman said. "The network was overloaded. It's this type of scenario we are trying to educate people about. After 9/11, some fire departments and individuals bought one or another form of emergency communications, and then stuck the equipment in a closet."

Gorman heads a newly created Globalstar team that will operate out of Washington with the sole objective of assuring that HSA spending does not overlook existing infrastructure like Globalstar's. "People don't have quite enough information yet on how the funds will be made available, but we're aggressively going out to the relevant agencies. This figures importantly in our business plan."

How much demand there will be for satellite communications is uncertain, as is the exact amount of money that DHS will be distributing to state and local organizations.

But it seems clear that a market is being created. New York City's Office of Emergency Management, together with DHS's Office for Domestic Security, recently ran drills of emergencies at a sports stadium and in the subway system, both simulating chemical or nuclear attack. Both operations were designed in part to evaluate communications needs immediately following the detonation of weapons of mass destruction in a crowded urban setting.

Bob Roe, senior vice president for sales at Stratos Global Corp. of Bethesda, Md., which sells Globalstar, Inmarsat and Iridium products, said it likely will take until 2005 for these operations to lead to a coordinated strategy by HSA and recommendations to local agencies on what technologies to purchase.

Until then, Stratos is contacting the 30-odd constituent agencies of DHS to make the case. Cellular-network operators are doing the same thing, arguing that they can augment network capacity in an emergency by deploying specially equipped vans to the scene.

"Our estimate is that about half of the 30 or 32 agencies that make up Department of Homeland Security will have, or will drive, a communications requirement," Roe said. "Our focus is now on those agencies. It is an absolute priority for us. We want to provide them access to the communications infrastructure in emergency situations, and we don't care whether they prefer Inmarsat, Globalstar or Iridium. We're solutions driven, not technology-driven."Having emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy virtually debt-free, both Iridium and Globalstar are offering pricing packages that are substantially less expensive than they were in 2001. That has put pressure on Inmarsat's voice business, which is more expensive but which is geared more to data transmissions.

In its bid to obtain a permanent operating license in the United States, Inmarsat has argued to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that the company's services are crucial to the U.S. Coast Guard and other national and local security agencies.

While most active in the United States, the movement toward buttressing emergency preparedness against the terrorist threat is not restricted to the United States, and is not limited to telecommunications. The 25-nation European Union has initiated a program to evaluate security levels against terrorist threats, with satellite-delivered communications and satellite imagery expected to play a role in the program, which is expected to be put into place by 2007.

In Canada, the recent Exercise Narwhal in Canada's far north used the Radarsat satellite and an unmanned aerial vehicle in an interdepartmental drill to test crisis response and management.

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