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Providers Seek Early Buy-in For Emergency Communications

By | March 20, 2006

      When it comes to buying emergency satellite communications before disaster hits, governments have yet to fully embrace purchasing complete systems. "They don’t want to pay for it if they’re not using it," said Kirby Farrell, executive vice president of Segovia.

      "Emergency managers at the state level, even after the hurricanes that destroyed the Gulf Coast, aren’t prepared to buy equipment until after the storm has hit," added Walter Gorman, Globalstar‘s vice president of satellite services sales for the United States and Caribbean. "They told me that they would only buy equipment after the President declares a state of emergency and they can get FEMA dollars. I asked them how they were going to call me when all of their communications have failed?"

      Obviously, it is money – or rather the lack of it – that keeps government from spending millions on preventative communications bandwidth and equipment. In response to this fact, both Globalstar and World Communication Center (WCC) have developed creative products that recognize this reality, while making it possible for bureaucrats to get emergency communications lined up before the next Katrina hits.

      Globalstar developed a $29.99/month rate plan called, appropriately enough, the Globalstar Emergency Plan. Under this scheme, subscribers buy a satellite phone, then pay $29.99/month to ensure ongoing access to the Globalstar

      satellite network. When trouble hits, they are charged for the air time they actually use on a $1.49/minute basis. All other times, the $29.99/month payment allows their satellite equipment complete connectivity to the network.

      "We’ve received a lot of requests from government and business after disasters, who have had branch offices devastated and are now looking for some form of backup satellite communications that they can maintain for a small monthly fee," said Dennis Allen, Globalstar’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. "We thought that the Globalstar Emergency Plan was the best way to create something in line with what the government has been asking for."

      The WCC is also taking the low-priced emergency communications route, by offering ‘Hibernation Plans’ to users of its Iridium satellite phones. "With the WCC Hibernation Plan (HP), [you can] elect to ‘hibernate’ your phone for one consecutive period of up to six months for a small fee — eliminating monthly access fees," according to WCC officials. "Under the HP system, users only have to pay $35 a month in hibernation mode; followed by $1.40/minute for Iridium-to-landline calls, and $0.85/minute for Iridium-to-Iridium calls."

      Likewise, the WCC plans to open up government pocketbooks by going a lot further than emergency phone service. In fact, the company is spending $1.5 million to outfit a motor coach as a self-contained satellite communications; complete with VSAT and Wi-Fi transmission equipment, a 12 KV diesel generator, two weeks’ worth of diesel fuel, and sleeping/living accommodations for six people. Once the coach is completed in a few months’ time, the WCC intends to rent it to governments and agencies on an as-needed basis.

      "This isn’t just a trailer that you have to haul behind a truck," said WCC President Sam Romey. "This is a fully self-contained command center that has everything it needs to do the job once it gets on site, and the ability to support local Wi-Fi users, cellular phone users, and even mobile ATMs linked via satellite. You can even roll it into a C130 and deploy it overseas; in situations such as the tsunami disaster zone."

      Eventually, WCC plans to build a fleet of these mobile command centers, and have them located strategically around the United States on standby; ready to hit the road when disaster strikes. "Our government clients won’t have to buy equipment that gathers dust on the shelf, and that nobody knows how to use when it is needed," Romey added. "Instead, we’ll rent them access to a fully-ready, complete communications solution that they can use as they need it."

      Globalstar’s and the WCC’s creative approaches impress Paul Harr, Panamsat‘s director of product marketing. However, having directly experienced how governments prevaricate when it comes to preventative planning, he isn’t sure how much they will alleviate government reluctance to pay upfront.

      "Governments want commercial enterprises to make the investment in emergency communication solutions; however, the risk is [that] equipment sits on the shelf and does not generate revenue," Harr told Satellite News. "Business cannot practically afford to do this. For us to support government in an economically realistic fashion, there has to be some form of cooperative partnership; not this ‘hope and a prayer’ situation where you hope and pray something happens so that the government buys from you."

      The bottom line: although Globalstar and the WCC have gone a long way to make emergency communications easy and affordable for government clients, there’s no guarantee that the bureaucrats will take them up on their offers.

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