“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” said Liz DeCastro, a spokeswoman for Iridium Satellite. “We’ve just shipped 10,000 phones and we’re ready to ship another 6,000.”
There has been a 3,000 percent increase in traffic in the region since the hurricane landed in the area, DeCastro added.
Iridium is a worldwide provider of voice and data technology through its constellation of 66 low-earth orbiting satellites. The firm has supplied some 25,000 phones to the Department of Defense and there are reports some are being pressed into service as commercial telephone and cell phone firms struggled to repair their equipment damaged in the storm.
The Defense Information Systems Agency has deployed satellite equipment to its Camp Shelby, Miss., facility and has sent Iridium phones for use on the USS Bataan, a Navy ship that's conducting rescue operations off the coast of Louisiana. However, given that an estimated 1.8 million phones are dead, it’s not enough.
Another satellite telephone provider, Globalstar, reported that it has deployed 10,000 phones in the Gulf Coast region. The firm said it is deploying more than 15 times its normal volume of gear including 100 that have been donated for the states of Louisiana and Mississippi to use.
Globalstar, which said it has been working closely with emergency organizations, said it has doubled its capacity for calls to landline phones and has increased its spectrum allocation to accommodate the surge in usage.
In addition to the hundreds of thousands of residential and business phone subscribers without service in the Gulf Coast region, most emergency organizations have been without telephone service, even after some government officials have urged the creation of failsafe backup communications service.
“We always discover the same thing,” former FCC chairman Reed F. Hundt told the Washington Post. “We need a national emergency communications network and we don’t have one.”
Satellite phones, although still somewhat expensive, are increasingly becoming affordable. Iridium, whose phones are typically marketed through resellers, has seen satellite phones drop from $3,000 to between $1,000 and $1500. De Castro said usage costs are becoming affordable, too, with prices as low as $1 to $1.25 a minute. “They’re very easy to use,” she said, adding that the Iridium staff at Maryland and its outlying offices have been working around the clock since the Katrina threat emerged. “We’re typically inundated in the first days of an emergency until the cell phones are fixed.”