Look to the Skies for Disaster Recovery


If you were born between July 23 and August 22, you fall under the fifth astrological sign of the zodiac, Leo. As a Leo, your traits include being dominant, creative, and extroverted. You are strong willed, independent, and ambitious.

However being a "LEO" in telecommunications has an entirely different meaning.

In telecom, LEO stands for "low Earth orbiting," and refers to satellite systems. This is not to be confused with geostationary Earth orbit (GEO) systems, which you may be familiar with if you have satellite TV service from a company like Dish or DirecTV. With satellite TV service, you receive signal from GEO satellites that sit 22,236 miles above Earth's equator, and appear to be stationary in the sky. To receive service, your satellite dish (antenna) points toward the Dish or DirecTV GEO satellite.

Satellite phones, on the other hand, use LEO satellites. These satellites are only 485 miles above Earth, and move at 17,000 miles an hour. While this creates some coverage problems, LEO systems offer a major advantage over GEO satellites.

While a satellite phone's antenna is oversized compared to a normal cell phone's antenna, it is still smaller than a satellite dish (antenna). The further the satellite, the larger the antenna must be. Also, communicating with a LEO satellite requires much less power than doing so with a GEO satellite.

You might think satellite phones are exotic and expensive -- and you probably can't imagine why anyone within your organization would need one. However, after considering the pros and cons, you might not find this to be such an "out of this world" idea, especially with hurricane season approaching. Let's explore.

Cell Service in Reverse
I'm sure you are familiar with how cell phones work, but let me recap. When you place a call, your cell phone uses a stationary cell phone tower to relay your call into the network. As you drive to the outer limits of your current cell tower, the network hands your call to an adjacent stationary cell tower. This is done automatically and (hopefully) without disruption.

Satellite phone technology works in reverse. Instead of stationary cell towers, you have orbiting satellite "towers." While you remain (relatively) stationary, the satellite towers move, at 17,000 miles an hour. And when a satellite moves out of range, the system automatically hands off your call to the next satellite coming into your coverage area.

Since LEO satellites are only 485 miles above Earth, they can only cover a limited portion of the Earth's surface at any one time. In order to provide uninterrupted coverage, you need a constellation of LEO satellites. Motorola determined that it would need 77 LEO satellites to provide continuous and contiguous coverage of the Earth -- and so christened its satellite service after the chemical element Iridium, which has an atomic weight of 77.

Inexpensive Insurance?
While satellite phones are expensive, at a cost of $500 to $1,400 a pop, the monthly subscription charge is similar to what you might pay for cell phone service (i.e, $60 per month), albeit with 0 minutes. Usage charges range from about $1.25 to $2 per minute. Thus for a little over $2 to $3 a day, you can have satellite coverage.

3 Use Cases
Satellite phones are considered normal business expenses in several industries that need to provide coverage in areas that are off the beaten path. Examples include offshore drilling; transoceanic cargo shipping; military operations or law enforcement in remote, unpopulated areas; logging and mining; and natural gas fields.

At times, an individual might need a satellite phone, too, in situations where cell coverage is spotty or non-existent -- when mountain climbing, off-road racing, sailing the ocean, wilderness camping/hiking, or participating in an extreme tourism adventure, for example. Adventurers can rent satellite phones for about $50 to $70 a week.

I find disaster recovery to be the most intriguing use for satellite phones. Consider these two aspects: First, what scenarios might warrant use of a satellite phone? Second, how do costs compare to benefits?

Disaster Scenarios
What happens if no voice service -- neither landline nor cellular -- is available? Such a situation might occur during natural disasters:

In addition, "manmade" disasters can sometimes lead to such high call volumes that landline and cell networks essentially become unavailable. This can happen during terrorist attacks, incidents at nuclear power plants, toxic chemical spills or leaks, or, when railcars are involved, derailments.

Cost Versus Benefit
Think of a satellite phone purchase as an insurance policy. What are the cost/benefits of this insurance?

On a personal level, the analysis becomes quite sharp and clear. If you were engaging in a dangerous endeavor with no cell phone coverage (i.e. mountain climbing), is it worth spending $60 a week to potentially save your life? Is this "insurance" policy a good value?

On a business level, the analysis is harder to define. What is the likelihood of losing all voice, cell, and internet (VoIP) service?

What is the potential cost of not having phone service? Can you quantify this in dollars? Is there a potential loss of life if you cannot place/receive calls?

As an IT/telecom professional, you are expected to think out of the box and consider innovative and creative ideas and solutions.

Evaluate satellite phones as part of your disaster-recovery plan. For a few dollars a day, you can have a real "out of this world" insurance plan.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.