SatPaq to the rescue with satellite texting

Embedded in a smartphone case, the device uses microwaves to send text messages via geostationary satellites.

The National Park Service spends nearly $5 million each year on search and rescue operations, and it’s estimated that state agencies spend significantly more. If hikers and campers had a way to call for help from remote locations, agencies might not have to spend time and money looking for them.

One solution might be Higher Ground’s SatPaq device, which uses microwaves to send text messages via geostationary satellites. It was conditionally approved by the Federal Communications Commission in January for deployment of up to 50,000 units.

The initial market for SatPaq, said Higher Ground founder and CEO Rob Reis, is the more than 180 million people each year who venture into the wilderness for hiking, camping, fishing or hunting.

There’s no cell coverage in most of those remote places. “Nobody lives there, so there's no reason to put up $1 million cell tower,” Reis said.  “This is not going to change, but people want to stay connected.”

The first version of SatPaq is a satellite transceiver embedded in a smartphone case. About the size of a deck of cards, it connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and features a flip-out antenna for sending microwave signals to Intelsat Galaxy satellites.  The company is working toward getting the technology embedded directly in smartphones, Reis said.

The FCC’s approval for an initial deployment of SatPaq was made over strong opposition from cell-service providers, including Centurylink, which charged that deploying SatPaq devices without more rigorous testing of their potential for interfering with existing traffic in the C-band microwave spectrum was a "recipe for disaster."

Reis countered that SatPaq’s “Channel Master” interference protection software is up to the job. When the SatPaq connects to a satellite, he explained, the first thing it does is check the FCC’s Universal Licensing System -- a database of all transmitters and receivers and the frequencies they are using -- to ensure the SatPaq does not interfere. If the SatPaq can’t find an unused frequency in the band, it won’t transmit.

The ongoing appeals of the FCC’s decision don’t surprise Reis.  Those who already are using the spectrum, he said, “are saying, ‘Don’t do it here.’”  But he sees the technology represented by SatPaq and Channel Master as the future.  “The future of this precious public commodity spectrum lies in using it more efficiently,” Reis said.  “We are doing that.”

The FCC’s approval for initial deployments, however, does have conditions that make it clear the commission is going to move forward carefully. 

For starters, Higher Ground must retain remote control over SatPaqs so it can shut them down if interference does occur.  Also, the FCC is allowing only 5,000 SatPaqs to go into service per quarter. Higher Ground maintains detailed logs of all transmissions.

Reis said he is not concerned about the FCC giving in to appeals by existing service providers.  “The FCC gets it,” he said.  “The new chairman has already publicly said how important innovation is to his tenure.”

Reis declined to announce a launch date, but he did say the SatPaq will retail for less than $200.

Editor's note: This article was changed March 29 to correct the number of devices allowed by the FCC.

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