Satcom Firms Tout Their Value to Disaster Response

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Arguing that satellite technology proved invaluable for first responders during Hurricane Katrina, members of the industry urged Congress and the Federal Communications Commission Sept. 29 to remember that satellite providers must be protected and prioritized when spectrum allocation decisions are made.

Hearings before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee both examined communications interoperability issues during Hurricane Katrina at Sept. 29 hearings. A similar hearing was held by the same Senate committee Sept. 22.

Industry leaders used the House hearing to tout once again the success satellite technology had during Katrina, though the technology received mixed reviews from government officials attending the Senate hearing this time around.

Satellite Industry Association Chairman Tony Trujillo Jr., a senior vice president at Intelsat of Washington , promoted satellite technology before the House, saying that satellites were used to reunite families, reconnect communities and connect emergency personnel.

“Although the performance of satellite systems was impressive, their use was often limited by a lack of preparation,” Trujillo said. “Had satellite systems been more effectively integrated into our emergency communications network, many of the communications problems that occurred … would have been substantially mitigated.”

Trujillo recommended satellites be regarded as an essential component in all future telecommunications planning, that systems be pre-deployed to professionals, and that satellite spectrum be preserved and protected.

Another industry player, Inmarsat Global Ltd. of London, filed a petition with the FCC Sept. 26, seeking permission to operate a spacecraft in the 2 GHz band, or S-band, part of the spectrum.

The FCC authorized eight companies to use the band for Mobile Satellite Services in 2001, but six of those companies have forfeited their authorizations, according to a Sept. 27 Inmarsat press release. The two companies remaining with authorization are ICO Satellite Management LLC of Kirkland, Wash., and TMI Communications, Inc. of Canada, according to Greg Kalish, senior vice president of Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek Communications, which represents Inmarsat.

Inmarsat representatives said the company is pursuing the 2 GHz spectrum in an effort to offer services to first responders.

“The devastating effects of the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes have demonstrated the need for interoperable communications service for emergency responders and political officials,” Inmarsat Chief Executive Officer Andy Sukawaty said in the release. “The 2 GHz band will allow Inmarsat to continue its long legacy of supporting the communications needs of the U.S. military, civil defense and all agencies associated with homeland security.”

If Inmarsat’s application is granted, it would provide Mobile Satellite Services by 2010 including voice, data and multimedia offerings for emergency responders, political officials and the military.

During the Senate hearing, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) emphasized the need to incorporate satellite phones into any future solution for first responders.

“With satellite communication systems through cell phones, you won’t have to worry about towers. We’re very hopeful that can be part of the solution to the problem,” Lautenberg said.

But David Boyd, director of the Office for Interoperability and Compatibility for the Department of Homeland Security, said that a combination of technology will be needed in a disaster, singling out satellite phones as just another technology that can be both helpful and unreliable.

“Many solutions have been offered and many claims have been made for each solution, but none is a silver bullet,” said Boyd, who went on to outline some of the drawbacks of satellite technology.

“Satellite phones are extremely useful for command elements, but often hopelessly impractical for individual first responders,” Boyd said. He said one drawback is that users must be trained to use the technology, and that vegetation, buildings or the elements can all cause interference to the signals.

“They also use batteries which need recharging, and a first responder in the middle of a rescue, up to his armpits in water will find the antenna hard or impossible to aim,” Boyd said.

Iridium spokesperson Liz DeCastro said in an interview that these limitations are exaggerated.

“There wouldn’t be literally tens of thousands of first responders using them today if they weren’t a good tool for communications in emergency situations,” DeCastro said.

Iridium’s phones can be charged with a solar charger or cigarette lighter charger if electricity isn’t available, DeCastro said, and have an extended battery, which allows up to six hours of talk time and 65 hours of standby time. She also said various companies are coming up with customized solutions so that a direct line of sight isn’t needed between the antennae and satellite.

And while buildings and vegetation can block the phone’s light of sight, DeCastro said weather is not an issue for satellite phones.

Iridium was among those scheduled to testify in a second panel featuring industry players before the Senate Sept. 29, but the panel was postponed to an undetermined future date.