— With wildfires raging on the West Coast of the United States and hurricane season approaching its busiest months, emergency workers should be checking their mobile satellite communications equipment to make sure they have adequate coverage, warns a Futron Corp. white paper.
Although the first handheld satellite phones entered the commercial market 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 drove home the need for satellite phones that could offer first responders a communications tool when disasters render cell phones and traditional phones unusable.
A wide range of satellite data and voice services exist in the United States with more to come in two to three years, but options are reduced from last year due to gaps in voice service from one of the four mobile satellite service companies, concludes Futron’s “Mobile Satellite Services: Status Check for First Responders,” which was published in June. The white paper outlines present and planned mobile satellite service capabilities from of Milpitas, Calif., of Bethesda, Md., Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) of , – with TerreStar of Reston factored into the mix for future services.
The four existing providers are in the process of constructing next-generation satellites, with some facing financial challenges over the next five years as they attempt to build or sustain their business, the Futron paper said.
“People need to be aware as they look immediately at their inventory for what they’re going to need this year, and looking at the longer term, these are the issues you need to keep in mind,” said Andrea Maleter, technical director of – based Futron. “The last paragraph of the white paper sums it up: ‘Candid, early discussions with service providers are the best way to determine whether the solutions procured over the past two to three years will be the best options for the next two to three years.’”
Of the four existing service providers, only Globalstar and Iridium offer what Futron categorizes as “optimal” portable, low-cost handheld services. Globalstar, however, is experiencing gaps in its phone service availability due to weakened signals from its fleet of 48 satellites – some of which are 10 years old. Degraded performance of the amplifiers for the S-band satellite communications antenna i s causing the gaps in voice coverage.
The highest level of concern expressed in the marketplace, in the media and by Internet bloggers relates to Globalstar’s ability to provide voice service over the next 18 months as it launches its next generation of satellites, the white paper said.
“First responders need to be aware that if they have Globalstar phones lying around and they’re going to rely on them this summer, they may have a real problem,” Maleter said. “This is not in any way to disparage the company or their data services, which are fine, but it’s important to check what you need, what you can get, and plan accordingly.”
The company has acknowledged its gaps in voice coverage in filings with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and in advisories posted on its Web site.
Tony Navarra, president of the company’s global operations, said the company has addressed the problem in several ways. In some cases the company has provided customers with packages that combine a set of Globalstar phones with a couple Iridium phones for emergencies. It also offers an Internet service called Optimal Satellite Availability Tool (OSAT) that allows customers to check four days in advance to determine when phone service will be available in their area.
He admits the system is not perfect.
“We wouldn’t be the best choice for emergency services today because you couldn’t plan in advance some of your voice services, but we would be acceptable, if not superior, for our higher data services,” Navarra said.
The Futron paper, which assigned “optimal,” “partial” and “limited or not available” 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 data service is “optimal.”
Iridium fared the best with “optimal” ratings in all but one category: defining its next generation system, for which it scored “partial.” MSV scored the fewest number of “optimal” ratings with three – for its data service, interoperability and next generation definition – and Globalstar and Iridium scored five and seven “optimal” ratings, respectively.
Navarro said some of the scoring, such as the “limited or not available” rating assigned to Globalstar’s interoperability, was inaccurate.
The other three companies scored “optimal” in that category.
“We’re completely interoperable with all the public switched networks, we have connectivity to cell phones, to data management systems, to all the other ways to communicate, so we have no more, and frankly no less, interoperability than the other guys have,” he said.
The biggest challenge for mobile satellite service providers is shoring up funding for their next generation of satellites. Globalstar will begin launching 24 next- generation satellites on Soyuz rockets in September 2009, adding to eight new satellites launched in 2007. The 32-satellite constellation is designed to last 15 years, double the seven and one-half year scheduled lifespan of the existing constellation, Navarra said, adding that he borrows money on a yearly basis to cover costs after factoring in revenue for the previous year.
Iridium and are on solid financial footing, the white paper concludes, but MSV and TerreStar still need financing to support satellite construction, Futron said.
In addition, Futron said Globalstar, MSV and TerreStar have not yet defined their ancillary terrestrial components, another point Navarra disputes with regard to Globalstar. The company has a $100 million contract with Hughes Network Systems, , , for its ground network, including 250,000 chipsets, and has a contract with Open Range Communications Systems of Denver to provide broadband service in rural using Globalstar spectrum, he said.
Navarra said the Futron paper was more pessimistic than it needed to be, especially toward his company.
“We have a ground segment, we have a space segment, we have existing customers and a 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’s happening.”