1st Responders Urged To Check Mobile Satcom Gear Early

With wildfires raging onthe West Coast of the United States and hurricane season approaching itsbusiest months, emergency workers should be checking their mobile satellitecommunications equipment to make sure they have adequate coverage, warns aFutron Corp. white paper.

Although the firsthandheld satellite phones entered the commercial market 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrinain 2005 drove home the need for satellite phones that could offer firstresponders a communications tool when disasters render cell phones andtraditional phones unusable.

A wide range of satellitedata and voice services exist in the United States with more to come in two tothree years, but options are reduced from last year due to gaps in voiceservice from one of the four mobile satellite service companies, concludesFutron's "Mobile Satellite Services: Status Check for First Responders,"which was published in June. The white paper outlines present and plannedmobile satellite service capabilities from Globalstar of Milpitas, Calif.,Iridium of Bethesda, Md., MSV of Reston, Va., and London-based Inmarsat — withTerreStar of Reston factored into the mix for future services.

The four existingproviders are in the process of constructing next-generation satellites, withsome facing financial challenges over the next five years as they attempt tobuild or sustain their business, the Futron paper said.

"People need to beaware as they look immediately at their inventory for what they're going toneed this year, and looking at the longer term, these are the issues you needto keep in mind," said Andrea Maleter, technical director ofBethesda.-based Futron. "The last paragraph of the white paper sums it up:'Candid, early discussions with service providers are the best way to determinewhether the solutions procured over the past two to three years will be thebest options for the next two to three years.'"

Of the four existingservice providers, only Globalstarand Iridium offer what Futron categorizes as "optimal" portable,low-cost handheld services. Globalstar, however, is experiencing gaps in itsphone service availability due to weakened signals from its fleet of 48satellites — some of which are 10 years old. Degraded performance of theamplifiers for the S-band satellite communications antenna is causing the gapsin voice coverage.

The highest level ofconcern expressed in the marketplace, in the media and by Internet bloggers, relatesto Globalstar's ability to provide voice service over the next 18 months as itlaunches its next generation of satellites, the white paper said.

"First respondersneed to be aware that if they have Globalstar phones lying around and they'regoing to rely on them this summer, they may have a real problem," Maletersaid. "This is not in any way to disparage the company or their dataservices, which are fine, but it's important to check what you need, what youcan get, and plan accordingly."

The company hasacknowledged its gaps in voice coverage in filings with the U.S. FederalCommunications Commission and in advisories posted on its Web site.

Tony Navarra, presidentof the company's global operations, said the company has addressed the problemin several ways. In some cases the company has provided customers with packagesthat combine a set of Globalstar phones with a couple of Iridium phones foremergencies. It also offers an Internet service called Optimal SatelliteAvailability Tool (OSAT) that allows customers to check four days in advance todetermine when phone service will be available in their area.

He admits the system isnot perfect.

"We wouldn't be thebest choice for emergency services today because you couldn't plan in advancesome of your voice services, but we would be acceptable, if not superior, forour higher data services," Navarra said.

The Futron paper, whichassigned "optimal," "partial" and "limited or notavailable" ratings to 11 categories, including voice and data services,system continuity, independence from terrestrial systems, interoperability,global coverage, funding and next-generation plans, said Globalstar's dataservice is "optimal."

Iridium fared the bestwith "optimal" ratings in all but one category: defining its nextgeneration system, for which it scored "partial." MSV scored thefewest number of "optimal" ratings with three — for its data service,interoperability and next generation definition — and Globalstar and Iridiumscored five and seven "optimal" ratings, respectively.

Navarro said some of thescoring, such as the "limited or not available" rating assigned toGlobalstar's interoperability, was inaccurate.

The other three companiesscored "optimal" in that category.

"We're completelyinteroperable with all the public switch networks, we have connectivity to cellphones, to data management systems, to all the other ways to communicate, so wehave no more, and frankly no less, interoperability than the other guys have,"he said.

The biggest challenge formobile satellite service providers is shoring up funding for their nextgeneration of satellites. Globalstar will begin launching 24 next-generationsatellites on Soyuzrockets in September 2009 to add to eight new satellites launched in 2007.The 32-satellite constellation is designed to last 15 years, double the sevenand one-half year scheduled lifespan of the existing constellation, Navarrasaid, adding that he borrows money on a yearly basis to cover costs afterfactoring in revenue for the previous year.

Iridium and Inmarsat areon solid financial footing, the white paper concludes, but MSV and TerreStarstill need financing to support satellite construction, Futron said.

In addition, Futron saidGlobalstar, MSV and TerreStar have not yet defined their ancillary terrestrialcomponents, another point Navarra disputes with regard to Globalstar.

The company is under a$100 million contract with Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., for itsground network, including 250,000 chipsets, and has a contract with Open RangeCommunications Systems of Denver to provide broadband services in rural America using Globalstar spectrum, he said.

Navarra said the Futronpaper was more pessimistic than it needed to be, especially toward his company.

"Wehave a ground segment, we have a space segment, we have existing customers anda revenue stream. How could we be the ones selected as being the most risky?"he said. "I would say that was very unfair to us; it's not what'shappening."

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SpaceNews reporter

Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.