In September 2001, I was working as a reporter covering the 9/11 attacks and was just a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City.
I was trying to communicate by text with a colleague several blocks away, to no avail. When you can’t communicate during a disaster, it only compounds the misery.
The planes that struck the Twin Towers severed cell phone service because a transmission tower positioned atop the north tower had been destroyed. First responders and anyone else trying to use cell phones were left with no signal. In the years since, we’ve only been more reliant on always-on Internet connectivity. But times of disaster, like this week’s impact from Hurricane Ian, are a reminder of a technology that for most people isn’t top of mind.
Satellite phones can be an indispensable tool during any disaster. When cell phone towers are down or Internet access is unavailable, satellite phones utilize constellations of satellites orbiting earth to relay voice and data.
Practically any business could make use of satellite phones, and the prices of phones and service have become much more economical in recent years.
“In the aftermath of a disaster such as a hurricane, voice communication is the essential need and a natural way to communicate,” says Thierry Watters, Director of Enterprise and Government Sales at the Satellite Phone Store (www.satellitephonestore.com). “Voice calls are efficient to provide information reliably, quickly, and efficiently. Voice calls can be made over VoIP using various types of satellite terminals or via satellite phones. However, satellite phones are the primary voice solution. They are portable, easy to operate, rapid to deploy, and some have additional emergency functions.”
Satellite Phone Store offers this run-down of the various type of satellite phones, where they work and the advantages and disadvantages of each:
•IRIDIUM: The only true global satellite phone is made by Iridium, a U.S.-based company. Iridium operates 75 satellites in low earth orbit— 66 operational plus 9 spares — and six spares on the ground. These phones offer voices, SMS services, Push-To-Talk (Iridium 9575) and basic data. Iridium also offers the IridumGO (soon the IridiumGO Exec), a small device that connects to your smartphone and enables it to make calls and send some low volume data over the Internet. In addition, the higher end rugged model 9575 and the IridiumGO have an emergency beacon capable of transmitting someone’s position to a dedicated emergency service.
Two other Iridium-based voice solutions are the iCom satellite radio and the ASE Cross band solution to connect an Iridium Push-to-Talk satellite phone to any LMR Radio network. iCom handheld terminals function like a push to talk radio. These satellite radios function similarly to a standard VHF handheld radio, but instead of connecting to land-based towers or repeaters, they connect to the Iridium satellites and offer pole-to-pole coverage in areas where other geostationary satellites cannot operate. Those who already own VHF, UHF, or HF radios can connect them to the ICOM IC-SAT100 via interoperable communications options or use the ASE Cross band solution.
•INMARSAT: An alternative to Iridium is the Inmarsat iSatPhone 2 phone. This phone relies on a network of three geosynchronous satellites. The phone needs to have a direct view of the satellite to function properly. Most of the earth has service except for the far southern and northern regions of the globe. They cannot be used in Alaska for example.
•THURAYA: The third option is Thuraya. A regional system used in Europe, parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. It relies on two geosynchronous satellites. This system DOES NOT work in the Americas.
Most of these phones can be inserted into a docking station, connected to a PBX, a radio network and serve as a backup phone line in case of an outage or enable over-the-horizon radio communications.
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