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Insight: MSS—Status Check For First Responders

by Andrea Maléter

First responders around the United States are already dealing with the beginnings of a busy and difficult season of managing natural disasters. From wildfires in the west to floods in the mid-west, the season has already started, and the National Hurricane Center has just forecast a bad season ahead with 9 major hurricanes predicted.

With this in mind, we have reviewed the current status of these systems to provide some insight into what users can expect, and what preparations they need to make to ensure they are able to get the communications capabilities they need to meet these challenges.

For emergency services users there is a need to take steps now to best ensure that they can rely on the systems they currently use, including the systems capable of providing handheld satellite communications service. The chart, above, provides an overview of these alternatives, and the rest of this article discusses each system in more detail.

What Are the Promises?
It has been ten years since the mobile satellite industry expanded dramatically beyond its traditional core with the launch of service on a series of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites. LEO satellites for the first time in history made handheld satellite communications services available commercially. While the range of services required to support recovery and reconstruction activities following natural disasters are supported by multiple satellite communications systems, handheld satellite services, which today are available in North America only from two LEO satellite systems, have proven themselves to be indispensable during the search and rescue phase of activities which occurs immediately following each disaster.

To provide more details of current system options, as well as what is planned, the table at the top of the next page depicts the basic services offered and currently available from each of the providers in North America, as well as a snapshot of their planned next generation expansion capabilities. What are the Challenges?
As indicated above, all of these systems are at some stage in the process of building next generation satellites. While the expanded capabilities shown above are attractive, looking a bit more deeply at the planned enhancements of each operator, it is clear that, before those capabilities are deployed significant challenges will need to be overcome. These challenges include a range of technical, market, financing and regulatory issues.

The financial challenges are perhaps greatest, and for some systems the next 2-3 years will be critical, as they move to finance, construct and launch new satellites while sustaining and growing business on increasingly limited satellite assets. Exceptions are Inmarsat, which has a solid, long-established financial position, and to a somewhat lesser degree Iridium, which has both a significant anchor tenant in the US Government and a consistently growing revenue base on satellites that do not need near-term replacement. On the distribution side partnerships are evolving to better serve customers and ensure access to equipment as well as services as and when needed. Finally, on the regulatory front, all companies are working continuously with the FCC to have a regulatory landscape which provides a positive future environment for the user.

Within this general framework, however, each system has its own challenges, some more immediate than others, as summarized in the table at the bottom of this page, and discussed in further detail.

Globalstar one of only two companies providing handheld service in North America, is experiencing satellite anomalies which present perhaps the most visible and immediate risks, and the company has confirmed in filings with the FCC that there are times of the day when its coverage for voice services falls short of the level expected under the Commission’s rules.

What this means is that phone service on the Globalstar system is not always available. In reporting on this situation in November 2007, industry publication Satellite Finance stated that: “While its low cost simplex products for asset tracking has continued to attract demand, subscriber numbers for its two-way voice and data services have flattened since the degradation of services began and much of the company’s plans are reliant on its next generation system, the first satellites of which are due to go up in mid-2009. The practical deployment of a potential ATC network would also obviously rely on the second generation system being in place, which is not likely until late 2010.” Potentially as problematic as the immediate technical concerns presented by this situation are the longer-term implications for the financial health of the business. Iridium, the only company other than Globalstar providing portable handheld satellite services, operates its first generation constellation which has outlasted initial design expectations, limiting near-term risks to the maintenance of system and service availability and putting the company in good shape to provide maximum service via hand-held equipment for the next 2-3 years. While multiple studies commissioned by the company have indicated the satellites currently on-orbit should continue to provide full service until a replacement constellation is launched starting in 2013, longer-term risks include the continued health of this extended-life fleet, as well as the construction and launch of future satellites. The company is in the process of designing their NEXT system not only as a replacement, but to provide improved capabilities, and is beginning the process of its financing. While this presents challenges, the company’s recent growth rates and the time frame in which they need to raise the money enhance the prospects for meeting these challenges.

With respect to Inmarsat, the most immediate risks are the ability to achieve global BGAN service, which is dependent on the launch of the third I-4 satellite, a launch that is now not expected until late 2008 due to launch vehicle delays. The gap in BGAN coverage is in the Pacific region. While the company has introduced a new dual-mode satellite and GSM hand-held phone in mid-2007, targeting the customers and contracts of Iridium and Globalstar, this new capability, a result of Inmarsat’s relationship with ACeS starting in Asia, will only be available in North America after 2010.

MSV faces the need to launch its new generation MSV-1 and MSV-2 satellites in 2010 in order to provide both its promised expanded service offerings, as well as to move into hybrid services using ATC. MSV’s plans also include backwards compatibility with current customer equipment, but this requires deployment of a specially-designed network interface that will enable existing satellite communications hubs and customer terminals to operate on its next generation satellite network. All of this requires significant financing.

What is the Perception?
The challenges noted above have, not surprisingly, created a range of views within the marketplace - among investors, customers, and distribution partners - about the perceived ability of each system to meet its service/market promises, or to sustain service. These perceptions have been highlighted in reports by financial analysts and trade journalists, and as needed have been addressed by the companies themselves in regulatory filings. Based on a review of financial reports, trade publications, the general press and even Internet blogs, while all systems receive some critical or skeptical commentary, the highest level of concerns expressed for the near-term MSS business has involved Globalstar.

As noted above, the company has been open in its regulatory filings about the degree to which its current spacecraft anomalies have limited service availability, in particular limited voice service. Beyond this the public commentary has been extensive. There have not been any similar concerns expressed with the ability of the other operational systems - Inmarsat, Iridium, and MSV - to provide service this hurricane/wildfire season or next. Questions do continue to be raised for the longer term about the ability of the latter two to finance and launch capacity needed by 2012-2014.

What Steps Should Users Take Next?
For organizations gearing up to face the challenges of disaster response and emergency communications, the good news is that MSS systems offer a wide range of solid choices for both voice and data services this year. That being said, the options are reduced from last year, and many of the promised new capabilities are on hold, awaiting satellites, partners and money. First responders and others with a genuine potential need for such services thus need to carefully assess whether the specific equipment they own and the associated services will be available when needed.

Candid, early discussions with service providers are the best way to determine whether the solutions procured over the past 2-3 years will be the best options for the next 2-3 years. Emergency managers need to review the equipment they have on hand, as well as the service agreements associated with that equipment, and contact their service providers to verify the current system status. All of the MSS system operators reviewed in this paper are ready and willing to have those discussions, to ensure that first responders are effectively equipped to communicate as and when needed.

About the author
Andrea Maléter, the Technical Director, Space and Communications Division, at Futron Corporation, a leading consultant firm to the aerospace and telecommunications industries.