Firm’s Broadband Plan Would Partner Community, Rescue Services

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SAN FRANCISCO — Spacenet Inc. is vying for a share of the U.S. government’s multibillion-dollar broadband program by offering to provide community institutions such as schools and libraries with satellite communications that could be pre-empted by emergency service agencies during a disaster.

The idea is to address two important elements of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a $4.4 billion campaign established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and led by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration to extend high-speed communications to unserved and underserved households as well as schools, community centers, libraries and public safety groups.

“The government agencies in charge of allotting these monies have several things in mind,” said Andreas Georghiou, chief executive of McLean, Va.-based Spacenet, a subsidiary of Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. of Israel. “One is to reach every American household. Another is to address public safety issues and remote community anchor institutions like libraries, schools and hospitals.”

Spacenet executives already are proposing this type of program for various cities, including Los Angeles, and states, including Louisiana and New York, to allow community institutions in rural areas to share bandwidth with police and fire departments, Georghiou said. “If, God forbid, one of these communities has been hit by a disaster, man-made or otherwise, then one can drop the libraries and distance learning and give this bandwidth to [the city or state’s] fire departments and police departments,” he added. “In essence you have provided the same bandwidth to a different constituency because of the emergency.”

Police and fire departments rely on terrestrial networks for day-to-day communications. When those terrestrial networks are disrupted, satellites can help to restore voice, data and video communications within minutes, Georghiou said. However, many public safety agencies do not have enough money available to invest in communications equipment and services that will only be needed during disasters such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes, he added.

By combining the public safety networks with communications for libraries and colleges in rural areas, Spacenet can trim the cost of emergency communications. “If every major police department in this country were told that with an upfront investment of $6 million to $7 million to install a satellite network, but practically no ongoing expense, they would be able to back up their terrestrial network, I think that may have a tremendous appeal,” Georghiou said. “If they didn’t have to pay for that ongoing expense because it’s being shared by all these other rural communities, they might find that very interesting.”

In addition, Spacenet officials say they could provide the satellite-based broadband communications services very quickly. “We could offer service to a number of key states today with capacity that is sitting idle,” said Jon Douglas, Spacenet director of marketing communications.

Spacenet currently provides satellite-based and satellite-terrestrial hybrid communications services to government and business customers on Intelsat’s Galaxy 27, EchoStar Corp.’s Echostar 9, and SES Americom’s AMC-4, AMC-5 and AMC-6 satellites.

Spacenet will face competition from other satellite service providers as it seeks funding for emergency service networks. On June 1, Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., announced plans to offer HughesNet Emergency Business Internet service to provide expedited broadband connections for government and business groups during disasters. Hughes officials announced the new service, which includes round-the-clock technical support and a two-month service commitment, in anticipation of the 2009 hurricane season.

“Landline connections are not always reliable when hurricanes or other disasters strike, forcing organizations to cease operations until connectivity is restored,” Mike Cook, Hughes senior vice president, said in a statement. “This can mean significant loss of revenue for businesses, and disruption of government services, which are needed most in recovery operations.”

Some states already use satellite networks for emergency communications. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety relies on a network, designed by Orbital Data Net, a satellite network integrator based in Columbia, Mo., and Spacenet to support various types of communications including emergency telephones that carry voice over the Internet. Similarly, the Missouri Department of Transportation contracted with Orbital Data Net and Spacenet for a satellite-based network to help government agencies and community organizations re-establish voice and data communications after floods.

Nevertheless, some national, state and local government officials remain skeptical of using satellites to back up emergency communications. “Some public safety agencies have a distorted view of satellite communications,” Georghiou said. “They think satellites are expensive and that satellites cause [communication] delays … which is contrary to reality. As an industry we need to talk to policymakers and make sure they are aware of the benefits of satellites.”