DHS sets up emergency satellite comm service

The Homeland Security Department's National Communications System is launching a three-year pilot program to give key government and industry facilities access to advanced satellite communications during emergencies.

The Satellite Priority Service is being provided by Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va., through a contract with Sprint Corp.'s Emergency Response Team. The service will provide interoperable, nationwide push-to-talk radio and satellite phone service that will not be affected by local terrestrial conditions.

'Push-to-talk is incredibly spectrally effective,' said Jim Corry, vice president of government solutions for MSV. 'It requires very little satellite resources to talk to a lot of people. Most important to NCS, the push-to-talk never touches the PSTN,' the Public Switched Telephone Network that carries terrestrial telephone traffic.

MSV is a joint venture between Mobile Satellite Ventures LP, owned by SkyTerra Communications Inc., and Mobile Satellite Ventures (Canada) Inc.

The Satellite Priority Service is being run from the same NCS office that provides the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service for wire-line phones and its cellular equivalent, the Wireless Priority Service. GETS and WPS provide authorized government and industry users with priority service on commercial networks during emergencies when resources may be inadequate to meet all needs. Unlike these programs, which put authorized users at the front of the line for access to commercial service, the Satellite Priority Service will be a dedicated program for authorized users only.

The satellite will act much like a repeater for a traditional radio in push-to-talk mode. The signal is sent from a ground set to one of two MSV satellites in geosynchronous orbit over North America, which relays it to the ground station. There the network identifies the radio and the talk group being used, looks for other talk group members who are on the air, summons their radios to a common frequency, then sends the signal back up to a satellite and down to the radios of the talk group.

Satellite phone calls to other MSV users do not go over the PSTN. Phone calls made to non-MSV phones are transferred to the traditional phone networks for delivery.

The ground set is mobile, but not portable. It consists of a 9-inch automatic tracking L-band antenna and a handset, both connected to a transceiver somewhat larger than a laptop computer.

'This is not a handheld device,' Corry said. It can be installed in a vehicle or easily carried in a 'go-kit.'

DHS is funding a pilot program to provide one ground set each to 65 critical facilities with three years of service. Participating facilities now are being identified by NCS and probably will include emergency operations centers for federal, state and local government agencies as well as critical infrastructure providers.

NCS also has created four talk groups for the program. One is a private mode group that will allow one-to-one communication with any other program member by using a radio ID. Another talk group will include just federal, state and local officials; one just telecom industry users; and the fourth will be for high-priority use by both government and industry.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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