Satellites Keep Rescuers in Touch; Providers Pitch Service Reliability as Hurricane Season Draws Near

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Caterinicchia, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …