Satellite phones answer the call
- By Cheryl Gerber
- May 20, 2002
To avoid the exorbitant cost of launching and managing communications satellites, federal agencies will rely increasingly on the small but vital satellite voice market to ensure the global continuity of communications for public safety and for backing up and recovering technology systems in an emergency.
On Sept. 11, when landlines and cell phones were down, federal and local authorities relied solely on satellite phones. "We shipped 1,200 phones to Manhattan, and we were the only communication there for days," said D. D'Ambrosio, executive vice president of business development for Iridium Satellite LLC.
Despite the market's turbulence in recent years, the federal use of commercial satellite voice services has been growing. "We used to be the quietest program" at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said Lt. Cmdr. Augustine "Augie" Ponturiero, program manager for Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMSS) at DISA. "Then we saw an increase in use and interest after Sept. 11 because these systems are infrastructure-independent."
Although the customer base is small compared with landline and wireless voice services, satellite voice offers at least one feature the others do not: complete coverage of the Earth, including extreme polar regions.
The EMSS program is based on a Defense Department contract with Iridium that gives 20,000 government users unlimited airtime on Iridium's satellite network. The contract serves DOD and non-DOD agencies such as the State Department, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Customs Service, Ponturiero said. Satellite calls are routed through a DOD-operated gateway in Hawaii, thereby protecting sensitive user information, he added.
Officials at the General Services Administration also have seen increased use of satellite voice services through its satellite services program, which consists of 10 contracts with a variety of vendors.
"We've seen an overall growth in satellite service requirements since" Sept. 11, said April Ramey, director of the Innovation Center in the Office of Service Delivery at GSA's Federal Technology Service. "I'd estimate the telephony piece at 10 percent to 20 percent growth."
Each of the three major players in the satellite industry approaches the technology differently. Telenor Satellite Services Inc., a company formed by the merger of COMSAT Mobile Communications and Telenor Satellite Mobile Services Inc. of Norway, provides service via Inmarsat satellites in geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above Earth. It offers high-speed broadband voice, e-mail, fax and Internet connections. Inmarsat maintains Land Earth Stations in Connecticut, California and Norway that send, receive and manage satellite signals worldwide.
Since Telenor launched its first satellite in 1976, the company has dominated the maritime and high-end market, providing international service to the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration. Its phone/ antenna equipment has decreased in size and weight in recent years, down to about the size of a laptop computer.
In comparison, the Low Earth Orbit satellites operated by Iridium and Globalstar LP are located 1,000 miles or less above Earth. They cover the globe completely and tend to serve a lower-end market. Through a constellation of 66 satellites operated by Boeing Co., Iridium uses a cross-linking architecture in which a signal is passed between satellites until it reaches one of two network gateways on Earth, which then routes the call via landlines. DOD operates a gateway in Hawaii for federal use; a gateway in Arizona is for commercial use.
Globalstar operates its own constellation of 48 satellites using a bent-pipe architecture — like a U-shaped pipe — that relays satellite signals up and down to the closest of 25 gateways maintained at international locations on Earth.
Telenor offers faster speeds and more bandwidth than Low Earth Orbit satellite services, but the latter offer smaller, lighter phones. "They have antennas that are a little bit bigger than cell phones, but they are now down to the size of a cell phone," said John Evans, manager of commercial satellite augmentation for the Military Satellite Communications program at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
As part of DISA's EMSS, Evans recently tested the voice and data transfer abilities of Iridium's newest offering, Motorola Inc. 9505 satellite phones outfitted with a National Security Agency- approved hardware sleeve providing Type 1 security for encrypting classified information. "It worked 100 percent of the time from land to military aircraft and back," Evans said.
In 1994, an Iridium satellite phone cost $30,000. But since then, the price for such a phone — which is now a smaller voice and data unit — has plummeted to $1,500, D'Ambrosio said.
The satellite voice market rebounded after struggles that began in 1995, when it started losing market share to the wireless phone business. Just as the battle-scarred industry seemed to recover, it suffered another blow when Iridium and Globalstar filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Meanwhile, Telenor had changed ownership twice.
Today, however, industry experts view the events as the evolution of a new market.
"The satellite voice market is in better condition now than when the major players declared bankruptcy," said Jose del Rosario, strategic analyst and program leader for satellite communications at Frost & Sullivan. "For Iridium and Globalstar, the cost of deploying systems was very expensive, and the public market wants returns immediately. Since it's a slow-moving market, they didn't meet public expectations quickly enough."
Now, the satellite voice industry appears to have stabilized. Iridium and Globalstar have restructured, and the Federal Communications Commission has granted Telenor access to the U.S. market, pending its initial public offering this year.
Regardless of adoption rates, highly reliable satellite voice technology will continue to be used for the most sensitive security situations. Both the National Communications System and the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service relied on Globalstar Tri-Mode satellite/cellular phones at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"Users of the service were both federal and state/local emergency management leaders with a national security and emergency preparedness mission in Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas," said Gary Amato, deputy division chief of the National Communications System's Technology and Programs Division.
By all accounts, the use of satellite voice technology will continue to grow. "As a result of the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, there's an increased need for these kinds of services throughout the noncivilian and civilian federal government," said GSA's Ramey.
Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.
Ship-to-shore calling a hit
By 1997, the cost of a satellite telephone call had dropped enough to spur the Navy Exchange Service Command to sign a seven-year contract with AT&T to deliver satellite coverage via Telenor Satellite Services Inc. aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships worldwide. By most accounts, the program has been a success.
"Prior to 1997, the cost of a satellite phone call was $6 to $7 per minute," said Terry McClain, program manager for the Telecommunications Program Office at the Navy Exchange. "Now the cost to the sailors is $1 per minute."
For the past five years, the satellite voice service has been extremely reliable, McClain said. "We've had good success and support from Telenor," he said. "They've been very responsive. When they put new satellites in place, they always work out a transition plan with us."
Under the terms of the contract, AT&T pays monthly lease fees to Telenor for satellite channels covering the oceanic regions around the globe. In turn, AT&T issues prepaid calling cards to the Navy Exchange to use the service. Navy and Coast Guard crew members then buy the prepaid cards at the ship's store to make personal calls using the onboard satellite phones.
"The program is truly a quality of life we never had," McClain said. "I can't see that we would ever go back to not having personal calling for our ships."
Through the trees
In many wilderness areas, the U.S. Forest Service cannot communicate using a two-way radio system or wireless phones. There is no coverage.
That is when the agency relies on Globalstar LP's 1600 Tri-Mode satellite phones to check in daily, ensure public safety or place calls during medical emergencies. The phones operate in satellite, digital cellular or analog cellular mode. If users can't get coverage in one mode, they simply switch to another, said Steve Long, director of government services at Globalstar in San Jose, Calif.
Users can almost always get coverage in satellite mode. "There are instances in deep canyons where we don't get coverage, but generally it doesn't take too much movement to get to a location where you can get coverage," said Stephen Morris, telecommunications manager at the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Mont.
Military ops drive traffic
Officials for the Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services (EMSS) program at the Defense Information Systems Agency tracked the increased use of the program's Iridium Satellite LLC satellite voice system by comparing calls in April 2001 with those made in April 2002.
During April 2001, there were 30,430 minutes of usage from 9,700 global calls. In April 2002, those numbers jumped to 352,300 minutes from 79,580 calls, said Lt. Cmdr. Augustine "Augie" Ponturiero, EMSS program manager.
Ponturiero noted that 62 percent of the calls in April 2002 came from southwest Asia, which includes Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. "This indicates to me that this satellite voice system directly supports our warfighters," he said. "We are getting good reports from the field on the use of this system."