Anthony Navarra, President, Global Operations, Globalstar Inc.
Globalstar has made its share of headlines throughout the past year, though not always for reasons the company would prefer.
In December, the satellite operator awarded a contract to Thales Alenia Space for 48 second-generation satellites. The first of these spacecraft are scheduled to be in orbit in summer 2009, but some industry observers, distributors and customers are wondering if the company will be around when the new satellites reach orbit.
In February, Globalstar said customers may lose service because many of the company’s first-generation satellites are suffering from degraded performance in their S-band antennas. Eight spare satellites, four of which already are in orbit, will replace the worst performing spacecraft, and Globalstar has developed several methods it hopes will keeps customers happy until the next-generation satellites are fully operational.
“We have found remedies in handsets, gateways and software that will facilitate this extension as well as facilitate the subscriber experience,” Anthony Navarra, Globalstar’s president of global operations. “We have reported a half-dozen things that would allow callers to extend call time and quality. They are not as good as 48 satellites in a constellation, but they are still good.”
Navarra discussed these efforts as well as the company’s future with Via Satellite Editor Jason Bates.
Via Satellite: What are some of the remedies you are offering customers?
Navarra: When a subscriber gets on board they know they don’t have full ubiquitous service. There will be gaps, but we have created Web-based tools that allow subscribers to plug in either their city or their longitude and latitude. With that data, you can plan a couple days out the time you need to make your calls. We can give them the best 30-minute period, the best one-and-a-half hour period and when the gaps might be. These are unique for every subscriber depending on where they are on the surface of the Earth.
Via Satellite: What are you doing with your hardware?
Navarra: We have programmed the ground stations so they can pick up the satellites a little higher in elevation. They usually pick up the satellite as low as 5 to 7 degrees above the horizon. Now we have programmed them to pick up a little later in orbit — around 10 degrees. Now the quality of signal is better and they can hold a specific user call for a longer period.
On the handset side we have improved the performance for the fixed antennas, and on the handset itself we have altered the way the gateway and the handset are talking to each other to much like a cellular tower does.
The third improvement, and most important for the data side, is that we have developed a store-and-forward capability. This allows modems operating on our Qualcomm product family and some [value-added resellers] to collect data and store it. Then when the satellite is in range it dumps the data.
Via Satellite: Are there other improvements that can be made?
Navarra: We continue to look at new engineering and operations improvements we can do until mid-2009 when we begin to launch next-generation satellites. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue to work on any and all of these things until the second generation is operational, and everything we’re doing will be a tool in the second generation.
Via Satellite: What customer retention efforts have you initiated?
Navarra: We are absolutely focused on retaining our key customers, and we’re doing that by putting bundled programs together, multi-year programs, allowing subscribers to retain service and programs into the start of 2010. They know we have degraded operations and times of service, but the reduction is availability not quality of service. The real problem is that sometimes the satellites are not over your head long enough. We are saying to our business-to-business subscribers, “We know there will be times of outage, but if you use the Web-based tools you will get substantially reduced rates into 2010 when we will have new satellites providing new services.”
Via Satellite: Are these problems keeping you from attracting new customers?
Navarra: New customers are coming onto our Simplex data system like wildfire. It’s a different service on the L-band side so it’s not impacted by the satellite problems. It’s a one-way service for asset tracking. It’s not going to be as high an [average revenue per user] as voice or data systems because it’s one way, but the takeup rate is pretty good.
Via Satellite: Will this be a problem with your second-generation spacecraft?
Navarra: In the first generation we took a lot of the electronics in the S-band amplifiers and put them on the outside of the satellites on Earth-facing decks. These were two sets of antennas designed in mid-1980s in such an architecture that allowed the components to be lightweight. But we learned that at an altitude of 1,400 kilometers, that exposed them to more radiation, which degraded the components. For the second generation we have taken the majority of the active electronics and put them in the body of the spacecraft. We are protecting them from the radiation of the sun and have now selected rad-hardened parts, which will last a full 15 years.
The first generation had limited rad-hard parts, though our analysis had it right, as the satellites have lasted exactly 7.5 years. Rad-hard is a little more expensive but not much. For about $15 million we are getting second-generation satellites built to last 15 years.
Via Satellite: Have these issues affected the financing for the new spacecraft?
Navarra: We can go to the market and do a number of different options. We have not selected one yet. We want to keep options open, and the markets are not that good right now. We also have other strategic partners that would like to have a satellite company with service directed to them. Until then, we have Thermo Capital Partners and their funding to carry us through.
Via Satellite: Will these problems boost your competitors?
Navarra: Commercial viability using the Globalstar system is in the eye of the business or the eye of the subscriber. Some of the businesses have no problems at all dumping high-rate data, which Iridium can’t do. If a company is willing to work with our service as it is they are happy. On the other side, if emergency responders want service instantaneously, they would be very pleased if we ran the statistics. We did well with the weakened systems, but we wish we could have done better. In some cases, there are customers more likely to use Iridium because they want an instantaneous five-minute call. In other areas, we are retaining customers that are willing to work with us.
Iridium is 18 months older than us and they, too, will be experiencing difficulty in connectivity due to radiation and the life of their satellites. They will have to raise a large sum of money [for their next-generation satellites]. The timing is such that Globalstar will take the moral high ground. We have even made the case that if our customer wanted Iridium or Inmarsat phones, we’ve done that to make our subscribers happier.