Iridium trumpets latest satellite phones for emergency response

It’s touting interoperability with existing VHF and UHF radio systems

Just a month before the official U.S. hurricane season begins on June 1, Iridium Satellite LLC today unveiled satellite telephone communications equipment that will interoperate with existing UHF and VHF radio systems already used by police, rescue agencies, firefighters and other first responders.

In an announcement today, the Bethesda, Md.-based vendor said the equipment can prevent much of the widespread communications troubles that plagued the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pummeled the area last year. In the wake of the storms, landline and cellular telephone systems were largely devastated in Louisiana, Mississippi and parts of other nearby states due to downed lines, destroyed towers and other communications infrastructure failures. Emergency workers had to use radios, satellite telephones and other means to communicate until telephone service was restored.

The Iridium systems offer interoperable voice and data communications, will work anywhere and are portable, according to the company. The data services include integration of radio frequency identification tags to help track vehicles, supplies and personnel wirelessly during emergencies so that response efforts can be monitored, the company said.

Iridium services are already being used in some states, including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas.

The Iridium systems can interoperate with other communications systems, including VHF and UHF radios, making them flexible in times of emergency, Greg Ewert, executive vice president for Iridium, said in a statement. “Many states that could be affected by hurricanes this season are still far from being prepared from a communications perspective,” he said.

The Iridium systems also offer quick setup and do not use a land-based infrastructure that can be damaged in a disaster, according to the company.

“Iridium may typically be thought of as a satellite phone in the hands of a first responder,” Ewert said. “Increasingly, government customers are seeking Iridium for tracking and redirecting of important assets in an emergency, including critical supplies, vehicles and even personnel. This is done through communications systems based on our data-only transceiver. Many first responders [during hurricanes Katrina and Rita] were left vulnerable when it came to asset tracking. Supplies sat by the side of the road because communications were hampered with a lack of deployed mobile satellite services. They were unable to redirect supplies as needed. With our solution, they can stay in touch and stay in control.”

Ted O’Brien, vice president of market development at Iridium, said today that the systems can be expanded as needed. Satellite telephone handsets are priced at about $1,500 each, while a fixed base station that can be used in a rescue facility costs about $3,000, including an external antenna. The interoperability system that allows satellite telephone users to communicate with VHF and UHF radio users -- as well as more than two-dozen other systems -- costs about $10,000. Small mobile wireless modems that can be attached to vehicles and supply containers for wireless tracking cost about $500 each if tracking capabilities are to be deployed.

The equipment can be used with solar chargers so it can be recharged when power is out, or vehicle battery charger adapters can be used.

“First responders using Iridium tell us time and again that we’re often the only line of communications they have, particularly during and right after a disaster strikes,” Ewert said in a statement. “When communications infrastructure goes down, they need to get to the disaster scene and connect back to headquarters to coordinate their rescue and relief mission. ... It usually takes several days for first responders to set up more permanent, fixed communications services in a disaster scene. They use Iridium to keep in touch and to coordinate their rescue mission as it unfolds.”

Iridium provides global satellite voice and data communications using 66 cross-linked satellites, according to the company.

Since revamping its operations five years ago following the bankruptcy of its predecessor (see ”Iridium Refocuses on B2B”), the new Iridium Satellite LLC has positioned itself as a business and government satellite communications provider for fail-safe communications.

The original Iridium LLC was about to decommission its satellite network in 2001 when it was purchased by a consortium of buyers for $25 million. The satellite system cost $5 billion when it was built in 1998 by Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. and others.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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