This past October, New England experienced an early snowstorm that incapacitated businesses when snow laden tree branches crushed power and phone lines from New York City to Maine. Many businesses were prepared for the subsequent power outages via back-up generators, which supported servers and essential services. Yet these precautions did nothing to help anyone connect to the Internet or make a phone call when cable lines and cell towers were crushed with traffic. What so many organizations failed to consider were residual communication plans to ensure voice and data communications remained intact.
At the time, mobile carriers were overloaded with traffic and transferring essential work details became a nearly impossible challenge — especially when the outage stretched into a week long hiatus for many. Work days were lost, productivity dropped, and revenues for the week plunged.
Electronic technology has expanded written and print communications to include telephones, fax machines, cell phones, tablets, satellite phones, e-mail, the Internet, and mass communications that include radio and TV. With the exception of satellite phones, most of these systems share a common problem during disasters and crisis periods: They are ground based. Natural and man-made disasters often disrupt ground-based communications. This article looks at the role satellite communication can have in preventing diminished productivity and financial losses.
Satellite Phone Advantages
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Indonesian tsunami and other disasters have enforced the need for satellite phones due to their advantages over terrestrial communications. A satellite phone is simply a mobile phone that uses commercial space satellites instead of land-based radio towers to connect to phone lines. The phone signal is transmitted to an orbiting satellite and then back to earth. This creates a number of advantages.
- Satellite phones will work almost anywhere in the world, depending on the network provider’s coverage. All that is needed is a signal access to the satellite. The phones are not dependent upon cell towers. There are a number of providers with different coverage footprints, including one that literally covers the entire planet.
- Satellite phones will work during power outages. All that is required is a charged battery in the phone. There are also a number of accessory power supplies available to extend the life of the phone during the crisis period. These include chargers that plug into the cigarette lighter of a car or truck, additional batteries, data kits and solar chargers.
- Satellite phones are compact and convenient to carry and use. Just as with other phone technologies, these phones are now much smaller than older models.
- Satellite phone equipment and plans provide voice communication, Internet access, voice mail and access to email. Secure link communications are also available — you can have a T1 (high speed) connection in a portable, laptop-sized device.
Myth #1: Satellite phones are expensive
Actually, satellite phones were expensive. For example, the original Iridium phones cost $3,000 and up to $6.00 per minute. An Inmarsat RBGAN (regional broadband global area network) was $7,500 and $8 per minute for a mere 64 KB of data. Today, prices have dropped considerably:
- Iridium: $1,200, $1.15 per minute
- Globalstar: $499, $999, $1 per minute
- Thuraya: $1,200 $1 per minute
- Inmarsat iSat Phone: $599, $1.20 per minute
Myth #2 I can’t check my email or send data with a satellite phone
In reality, satellite phones are capable of transmitting data, sending texts and email. We have clients overseas that exchange data in critical areas, and customers in the energy and gas industry who can use BGAN data devices to transmit images of a well being drilled, for example, saving travel costs when it is time to resolve an engineering issue.
One satellite phone vendor recently developed a Wi-Fi hot spot feature that allows users to check their e-mail through a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Additional software can be loaded to increase speeds.
Myth #3 Satellite phones don’t work in bad weather
Not true: Satellite phones are designed to work in extreme conditions including rain, snow, fog, ice storms, hurricanes, blizzards and floods.
Myth #4: Satellite phones don’t work when the power is out
False: Satellite phones signals do not need to pass through a grid. Signals are sent to a satellite and through a gateway.
Myth #5: Satellite phones do not work when cell service is out
False: Satellite phones do not need cellular networks.
Satellite Communications In Use
Unitil, a gas and utility company providing services throughout Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, implemented satellite phones after its enterprise risk management (ERM) program found the loss of communications during a major storm event to be a high risk.
“Truthfully, we haven't had to use the satellite phones, but they are a needed contingency layer to a known, corporate risk such as loss of communications between internal emergency response units and external regulators during a major storm event or significant emergency incident,” explains Tom Murphy, Manager of Environmental Compliance and Business Continuity at Unitil.
Satellite phones were combined with increased bandwidth, redundant pathways to the data networks (Unitil uses an internal VoIP network for voice communication with reliance on third-party vendors for some connections) and additional emergency-only cell phones to improve the company’s communications capabilities.
Return On Investment
IDC released a study in 2009 that estimated the cost of network, system or application downtime for an average midsize company at up to $70,000 per hour. While this amount represents the extreme end of the scale, the cost of today’s satellite communications systems can offer a return on investment (ROI) after as little as a few hours of downtime.
Lou Altman is the CEO of GlobaFone, a satellite communication solutions provider based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For more than 13 years, Altman has helped corporations, government agencies, and the military develop remote communications and disaster planning initiatives by implementing satellite phone and data technology for uninterrupted worldwide communication. Originally a reseller of satellite phones, GlobaFone has grown to include satellite voice, data, and tracking solutions from major manufacturers including Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya, Globalstar, Delorme and more. Altman is a consultant to Guidepoint Global Advisors, and is a frequent speaker at international Satcom conferences and emergency planning events on both the state and federal levels. His unbiased presentations address the specifics of satellite technology including functionality, coverage, rates, planning, and more. Altman can be reached at 603-433-7232 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.globafone.com.