Sunday, May 18, 2008

GlobalStar Satellite Phones

While I’m supervising a bush camp of tree planters, I occasionally make use of a satellite phone for remote communications. These phones are invaluable for people working in extremely remote locations, where there is no cell or radio-phone coverage. Although they are a relatively new technology (I first saw them in widespread use in planting camps beginning about five years ago), their use has exploded in situations where the basic ability to communicate with the outside world is what matters, and where the cost is fairly irrelevant. For instance, as of last summer, GlobalStar (the provider that I’m familiar with) had over a quarter of a million phones in operation in over 120 countries around the world.

The way that the satellite phones work is quite simple. They are very similar to a cell phone in look and operation, but instead of getting a signal from a tower on a nearby mountaintop, the signal is transferred between the user and a satellite in low-earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit. GlobaStar has a network of 52 low Earth orbit satellites to provide coverage. The satellites fly about 1400 km above the earth, which in aeronautic terms is “fairly low.”

GlobalStar has a few problems, however. First of all, their satellites have to be close enough to an earth-based station (known as a gateway) to operate properly, so there are areas around the world where coverage does not exist. For instance, there are no gateways in remote areas of the ocean, because traffic in those areas is almost non-existent (except from passing ships). Therefore, even though the satellites fly over these areas, their phones don’t work there. Also, because the Globalstar satellites have an inclination of 52 degrees, they don’t provide coverage over the polar areas, which are “out of sight” of the satellites.

GlobalStar’s satellites were launched between 1998 and 2000, and were mostly expected to have a lifetime of seven to eight years. Accordingly, in 2005, some of the satellites started to be taken out of service. They are currently designing new satellites with much longer life expectancies, but I have no idea when they are being launched. I think they expected availability is around 2010, but I may stand to be corrected.

The big problem is that in early 2007, GlobalStar filed documents with the SEC in which they admitted to a problem with their S-band amplifiers (a critical part of the communications equipment) which would lead to a significant loss of operational capability by this year. In fact, I started having extreme difficulty in using my own satellite phone last summer. The company went so far as to issue the following statement last year: “Based on its most recent analysis, the Company now believes that, if the degradation of the S-band antenna amplifiers continues at the current rate or further accelerates, and if the Company is unsuccessful in developing additional technical solutions, the quality of two-way communications services will decline, and by some time in 2008 substantially all of the Company’s currently in-orbit satellites will cease to be able to support two-way communications services.” So in other words, the reliability of the GlobalStar network is highly questionable right now.

One of the other planting camps in my own company had a medical emergency today. An employee was found unconscious on a remote block by another member of her crew. She is quite fine this evening – the crew had the proper first aid personnel and gear on site to provide proper care, and a helicopter was called immediately to take her to the nearest hospital. However, the helicopter was summoned by satellite phone, using a GlobalStar phone. It worked well today, but we can’t count on the phones being reliable in all situations.

As a supervisor, I have to plan for safety every day, and have reliable methods of dealing with emergencies. My plans no longer rely on the assumption that my satellite phone will work. It’s funny – I spent fifteen years working in remote camps without a satellite phone, and never worried in the slightest. But now that I’ve become used to having it, I feel very uneasy knowing that the technology is no longer reliable.