- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2006

When the going gets tough on Earth, it’s time to switch up to the satellite.

Hurricane season starts Thursday, and satellite companies are vying for billions of dollars in government contracts, saying they can provide reliable communications for police, fire, ambulance and rescue crews during emergencies.

From basic satellite phones to inflatable antennae that can be tethered to the ground to withstand strong winds, PanAmSat Corp., Iridium Satellite LLC and other providers are pushing their products and services as the only reliable communications alternative should this year’s hurricane season include storms comparable to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Satellite communication systems worked during events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and natural disasters when cellular and land-line systems quickly became overwhelmed or disabled. The lack of interoperability among current systems is another problem, said Joseph R. Wright Jr., chief executive officer of PanAmSat.

When emergency responders are communicating locally, their networks are fine, but when they need the ability to work with outside users, or during high-volume situations, they are not prepared, he added.

PanAmSat, which owns and operates 23 satellites that provide video, broadcasting and network distribution and delivery services worldwide, has tried to design practical solutions and system upgrades that “show how satellites can be used to supplement what [emergency responders] are doing over the next few years,” Mr. Wright said.

Voice communications remain the top priority, and satellite phones provide that, but emergency personnel must be familiar with the devices or they “are going to throw it away” if they cannot quickly figure out how to use them and maintain the battery life, he said.

PanAmSat, based in Wilton, Conn., also sells a QuickSpot antenna and other equipment that can be loaded onto a vehicle to provide voice, video and data communications for between $50,000 and $80,000. The bandwidth-on-demand service, which connects automatically to the satellite, requires a monthly network fee and usage by the minute that starts at less than $1 for data applications and up to $3 or more for video applications.

After last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes, PanAmSat’s Emergency Response Team and a partner assembled a fleet of 10 trucks equipped with the gear that could function as a standalone command post at disaster sites. The company now has 40 QuickSpots ready for use, Mr. Wright said.

PanAmSat’s inflatable antenna fits in 70-pound backpack and looks like a big rubber ball tethered down in extreme wind. The devices were used in Biloxi, Miss., last year and cost between $25,000 and $35,000, depending upon the features.

For the most extreme conditions, where emergency responders may need to be dropped into an area from a helicopter or airplane, the Pacstar 5500, which is most often used by military agencies, is built to support up to 100 users at a cost of about $100,000.

“If you do a classic cost-benefit analysis, the very high end, hardened systems are not really worth the dollars,” said Alvin Hanks, principal at Chesapeake Analytics, an Arlington consulting firm.

In most emergency situations, few people are actually out in the storms. Most are hunkered down and then mobilize as soon as the worst is over, making communication tools that enable rapid response and mobility most important, he added.

Iridium’s fleet of 66 low-Earth orbiting satellites carry voice and text communications, but only limited video. An Iridium handset costs about $1,000, a data modem is $500, and an interoperable unit for using phones, radios and other devices is priced at $10,000, said Liz DeCastro, spokeswoman for the Bethesda company. Iridium also offers a fixed unit with an antenna connected to a building that costs $3,000.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Florida Division of Emergency Management and Illinois Department of Transportation are among the company’s customers, she added.

The first priority for federal funds has been communications equipment and protective gear, but next should be spatial-information tools that enable responders not only to see where hospitals and shelters are located, but also to map out the fastest routes to those destinations based on storm damage or paths, said Mr. Hanks, a former Air Force intelligence officer and executive at Hughes Aircraft Co.

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